Uber Self-Driving Crash Video Reveals Failures of Car and Backup Driver

The Uber self-driving car after its impact with pedestrian Elaine Herzberg on March 18.
The Uber self-driving car after its impact with pedestrian Elaine Herzberg on March 18. Tempe Police

The human backup driver of an Uber self-driving vehicle took her eyes off the road just before Sunday night's fatal collision with a pedestrian in Tempe, newly released video shows.

Rafael, or Rafaela, Vasquez, 44, was apparently texting as the self-driving Volvo XC90 cruised north on Mill Avenue at about 40 mph, in autonomous mode.

The video, released by Tempe police on Wednesday afternoon, also reveals what looks like total failure of the autonomous vehicle to detect a woman walking a bicycle directly in its path.

Tempe police didn't immediately respond to questions about the video.

Uber released the following statement about it:

"The video is disturbing and heartbreaking to watch, and our thoughts continue to be with Elaine’s loved ones," the statement said. "Our cars remain grounded, and we're assisting local, state, and federal authorities in any way we can.”

Elaine Herzberg, 44, died after being struck by the Uber SUV, one of many self-driving vehicles the company has been testing in Arizona since being attracted to the state by Governor Doug Ducey's lax-regulation policy. The company has for now ceased its test operations in Arizona and other states.

Herzberg's death is a tragedy for her family, and also a public-relations disaster for Uber and other companies that want to test their technology on public roadways. Waymo announced last year it would begin testing vehicles with no backup drivers.

The short video released Wednesday seems likely to hurt public confidence in the vehicles, at least in the short term.

It begins with a front view of the car. In a few seconds, the woman seems to appear out of the shadows in the middle of the lane nearest the curb, right in front of the car.

However, the resolution on the camera isn't as good as a human eye. The woman had just walked from the median between the south- and northbound lanes of Mill Avenue just south of Curry Road, and from the northbound lane nearest the median before reaching the curb-lane.

Possibly, a human driver with average eyesight would have seen the woman — who was wearing white shoes — as she began her walk across the street, and would have slowed or changed lanes accordingly. But the human would have to be looking at the road — and Vasquez wasn't, as the video's second half shows.

In the interior view, Vasquez can be seen looking down and slightly to the right as the scenery goes by outside. She looked up and left for a few seconds. Then she looks down again for slightly more than five seconds. She saw Herzberg just as she looked up again, her face registering surprise. The video then cuts out.

The video evidence immediately raises several legal dilemmas if the pedestrian is not considered responsible for the crash. Could Vasquez be deemed responsible if the vehicle was in autonomous mode, or is Uber responsible? If Uber blames the crash on Vasquez, would she have a good civil case against her employer, since the vehicle arguably should have responded better?

Tempe police said on Monday the vehicle showed no "significant" sign of slowing before the crash.

Vasquez's action, or inaction, also raises questions about Uber's hiring practices. Vasquez served more than three years in prison in the early 2000s for attempted armed robbery. Uber said Vasquez passed a background test before being hired.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern