Was Uber Negligent in the Death of an Arizona Woman?

Many questions have come up in the wake of last Sunday’s tragic event when one of Uber’s autonomous Uber cars hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

Dash cam video from the accident reveals that the woman Uber hired to oversee the car and ensure that it was operating properly wasn’t paying attention at the time the accident occurred.

The woman, Rafaela Vasquez, 44, of Arizona is seen in the video fixated on something that appeared to be in her lap.  She took her eyes off the road for long periods of time and only briefly glanced up every now and then. The last time she glanced up was just a split second before the accident occurred.

It’s difficult to watch, but as she looked up that last time, she spotted the woman in the road and realized there was no way to avoid hitting her.  She had a look of absolute horror on her face as she realized what was about to happen.

People who have viewed the video commented that even a human driver would have hit this woman as she seems to have appeared suddenly in front of the car just a second before she would get hit.  On the car’s dashcam it appears that the entire road is dark except the part of the road that is directly in front of the car and lit by the car’s headlights.

However, many of these dash cams don’t always paint a true picture when it’s dark.  They don’t always show a scene in the same way the human eye would see it.  They often times only show the brightest most well-lit part of the road, making it appear that the rest of the road is completely dark and out of sight, when in reality a human eye would be able to see fine.

A commenter on Youtube named “ThePshaye” said he drove this road “recently at night and it is much better lit than what this video portrays, there are numerous street lights.”

And this video seems to verify that.  This is a video taken from a smart phone of the same stretch of road where the accident occurred.  The accident occurred at the :34 second mark in the video.

And here are some still shots.  The screen capture on the top is the location of the accident taken by a smartphone camera.  The screen capture on the bottom is the location of the accident taken by the dash cam in the Uber car. 

How Does Uber Train Autonomous Car Monitors?

This video brings up many questions that could well lead to trouble for Uber.

  1. Does Uber train the people who are hired to monitor the autonomous vehicles? Or do they just throw them into the driver’s seat and wish them good luck?
  2. Does Uber train them to keep their eyes on the road at all times? Do they stress that?
  3. Do they monitor these employees to ensure that they are keeping their eyes on the road?
  4. Do they give these employees any kind of personality or abilities tests to ensure they’re well-suited to this type of work?
  5. Are Uber’s autonomous cars really ready for the open road?

Our short experience with semi-autonomous cars such as the Tesla, has shown that when drivers believe the car will do the job for them, it’s very difficult for them to stay focused and keep their eyes on the road.

There have been several accidents in Teslas where although the drivers were told to always keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, that sheer boredom eventually overtakes them and they lose their focus.

It’s easy to understand how this happens of course.  If the car is driving perfectly for hundreds of hours, people will naturally begin to believe that they need no human intervention and their minds will start to drift off onto other things, and that’s what appears to have happened with the operator of this vehicle.

So, the question must be asked, does Uber have a rigorous process in place to ensure they hire the best suited and most qualified individuals for this job?  And does Uber provide rigorous training and really drill into them that they have to stay alert and they have to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel?

Rafaela Vasquez, Arizona Department of Corrections

Ridester has learned that the woman who was manning the autonomous vehicle, who was responsible for taking control of the car if anything went wrong – is an ex-felon.

She is Rafaela Vasquez, 44 and she “served three years and 10 months in an Arizona state lockup for convictions of attempted armed robbery and unsworn falsification”, according to the Arizona Republic.  She was released in 2005 and has stayed out of trouble since then.

Uber issued a statement saying the car’s operator met its hiring requirements in Arizona.  They pointed to their hiring policy which states, “Everyone deserves a fair chance.”

We would agree with that.  But, it has to be asked if Uber is hiring the highest caliber individuals who have the necessary skills and personality for this type of work?  And are they giving them serious in-depth training?

  • Do they run them through drills that teach them how to keep focused through the long hours of monotonous driving?
  • Do they test them before they hire them to see if they are able to maintain concentration through long hours of monotony?
  • Do they give them frequent breaks?
  • Do they tell safety drivers that on average, Uber’s autonomous vehicles need human intervention every 13 miles and they therefore have to be super vigilant?

Also, why was there only one safety driver in this car?  Uber had previously had two safety drivers working together as a team.  But around last October Uber switched from two employees per car to one.

Was that a premature decision?  Waymo still uses two safety drivers in its cars whenever it starts tests in a new location.

So many questions being asked, that I’m sure will come to light with time.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators in Tempe, Arizona, investigate the vehicle involved in the fatal crash.

Uber vs. Waymo

Google’s began working on self-driving vehicles in 2009.  That’s the same year Uber began operations.  Google took things very slowly and methodically.  They acted as if they were in no rush.  Their top priority was to get it right rather than getting it now.  When it comes to safety, that should be the way to go.

But The New York Times reported just last week that Uber has been in a big rush all along.  According to company documents they even had a program called “Milestone 1: Confidence” in which Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi was expected to visit Arizona next month and take a driverless ride in one of the vehicles.  They have been pushing very hard to get these cars operating as quickly as possible.

Have they taken shortcuts?  We know they took one shortcut because they agreed to settle Waymo’s lawsuit against them for $245 million.  The lawsuit alleged that Uber stole trade secrets from Waymo’s self-driving program.

According to court documents, it looks like Uber was having a hard time catching up to Waymo’s lead.  Google/Waymo had a six-year head start.  While Google started its program in 2009, Uber didn’t start its until 2015.  It’s no surprise then that Waymo’s technology is recognized as much better than Uber’s.

On average, a Google car can travel nearly 5,600 miles without driver intervention.  But as of this month, Uber has struggled to meet its target of 13 miles per intervention.

Reporters who have ridden in both company’s cars say that Waymo’s cars drive much better.  Uber’s cars are rough and jerky in comparison.  Waymo’s cars will come to a smooth stop when they sense a possible collision.  Uber’s cars, on the other hand, slam on the brakes, jerking passengers around in the process.

When you compare the two programs it becomes obvious that Uber’s self-driving capabilities are far inferior to Waymo’s.

Is Uber to Blame for This Accident?

Uber’s autonomous car program has been plagued with problems.  In San Francisco last year, several of its cars ran red lights.  San Francisco finally had enough and kicked them out.  That’s how they ended up in Arizona.  Arizona officials have taken pride in informing the public that they have put no restrictions on these self-driving car programs.  Well, now, maybe they should.

Google kept its cars off the roads for years, taking its time to make sure they got it right.  Uber on the other hand, followed Travis Kalanick’s creed and put being first to market ahead of everything else.  Kalanick is famous for saying that “second place was first loser.”

The bottom line is, if Uber had put safety first, this accident probably wouldn’t have happened.  If Uber hired the most qualified people as safety drivers, this accident could most likely have been avoided.  If the woman who was the safety driver of this car had been paying attention, as she was supposed to do, this accident most likely wouldn’t have happened.

It’s a tricky situation for any company, and unfortunately it had to happen to Uber. Let’s just hope lawmakers learn from this incident and put their best foot forward in the future.