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The safety driver in the self-driving Uber crash seems to have been watching “The Voice” on her phone

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
One of Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUVs.
  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

New details from the police report on the “entirely avoidable” death of a pedestrian struck and killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle in Arizona suggest the safety driver behind the wheel may have been distracted by her smartphone.

Tempe police checked Rafaela Vasquez’s phone after the crash, as camera footage recorded inside the self-driving vehicle showed her to be looking down at something away from the road multiple times, according the report, first obtained by Reuters yesterday (June 21).

“She appears to be looking down at the area near her right knee at various points in the video,” the report said. “Sometimes, her face appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the times that she is looking down. Her hands are not visible in the frame of the video during these times.”

Police obtained a warrant and recovered two LG smartphones owned by Vasquez. They found no signs that she’d been texting, or talking with anyone, but they did notice three video apps one on of her phones that could’ve been drawing her attention—Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. Analysis from Netflix and Google (YouTube’s parent company) showed that Vasquez was not watching anything on their services prior to the crash. Hulu, after first mistakenly providing police with data on someone else’s account, found Vasquez was watching an episode of the popular NBC talent show The Voice around a minute before the crash, and for much of the preceding hour. ”The end time of 21:59:00 hours coincides with the approximate time of the collision,” the report added.

Hulu provided detectives with Vasquez’s “subscription ID, IP Address, Source ID, Device and Internet Service Provider that was streaming the videos,” according to the report, suggesting it would know where the device was when it was streaming The Voice, although this information is redacted in the version of the report obtained by Quartz.

The report says that “Vasquez was distracted and looking down for 31% of the 21 minutes and 48 seconds prior to the collision,” and that she was “distracted and looking down for 5.2 seconds of the 5.7 seconds prior to impact.” Vasquez looked up just a half-second before impact. Investigators said “the crash was deemed entirely avoidable,” had she been paying attention.

“We continue to cooperate fully with ongoing investigations while conducting our own internal safety review,” an Uber spokesperson told Quartz. “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.”

Additional reporting by Alison Griswold. 

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