Police release footage from fatal self-driving Uber crash. Could it have been avoided?

Police release footage from fatal self-driving Uber crash. Could it have been avoided?
Police released footage from the fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber vehicle. (Image source: KCBS-TV video screenshot)

When a self-driving Uber SUV struck and killed a pedestrian in Phoenix, the immediate question was obvious: Was this a failure of technology that could have been avoided with a human driver?

Police released footage of the accident Wednesday, and now authorities, and the court of public opinion, will have to decide who is at fault.

What does the footage show?

There are two angles shown in the footage. The first is a dash camera that shows the road ahead (the view a driver would see), and the other is a camera facing at the backup driver, 44-year-old Rafael Vasquez, who was in the vehicle at the time.

The footage freezes a split second before the actual collision between the vehicle and the pedestrian, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who is pushing a bicycle across a dark, unlit highway.

As the vehicle is driving down the road, the pedestrian comes into view of the vehicle’s headlights just a second or two before impact.

The camera facing the backup driver shows the driver looking down until appearing to be startled immediately before the crash.

Whose fault is it?

Initial review of the footage by authorities has resulted in a general consensus that the Uber would not be considered at-fault in this fatal accident.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle and the Arizona Republic that the Uber would not likely be at fault because the crash was “unavoidable.”

After viewing the videos, Moir said that “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”

Moir added that she couldn’t “rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle.”

Testing self-driving cars

The self-driving Uber, a Volvo, was part of an autonomous car test program. The vehicle was in self-driving mode at the time of the accident, with a backup driver in the driver’s seat.

This marks the first death involving a fully-autonomous vehicle, and Uber suspended testing of all its self-driving cars immediately afterward.

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

(H/T: KCBS-TV)