By Barry Eitel
Uber suggested Friday that the safety driver in one of its autonomous vehicles involved in a fatal collision in March may have been breaking protocol if a local police report is correct.
The police report ruled that the March 18 collision between the self-driving Uber sports utility vehicle and a woman walking a bicycle was “entirely avoidable”, according to investigators from the Tempe, Arizona police department.
Rafaela Vasquez, the Uber employee behind the wheel of the car, was allegedly watching the television show, The Voice, through streaming platform Hulu on her smartphone. She did not look up to see the pedestrian until half a second before the crash.
Uber said that it does not permit operators of autonomous cars to use phones or other distracting devices.
“We continue to cooperate fully with ongoing investigations while conducting our own internal safety review,” the company said in a statement. “We have a strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating our self-driving vehicles. We plan to share more on the changes we’ll make to our program soon.”
The Tempe Police Department is potentially seeking to file manslaughter charges against Vasquez.
A report last month from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the Volvo outfitted with Uber’s self-driving technology detected the female pedestrian six seconds before impact and determined that emergency braking was required about 1.3 seconds before the crash.
However, the car’s automated safety braking system was deactivated by Uber in order to stop potentially erratic behavior.
Without an automatic system, Uber’s policy was to rely on the human operator inside the vehicle, but there was no alert that a crash was imminent.
Uber stopped its self-driving car testing program in Arizona last month following the NTSB report but is continuing to experiment with autonomous vehicles in other states.