“I am the operator”: the aftermath of a self-driving tragedy

Uber employees helped cops find the right footage, which would play a key role in the investigation: video of Vasquez in the driver’s seat as the car navigated the route; then from Vasquez looking towards his right knee, towards the lower console. Her downward gazes lasted an average of 2.56 seconds, but on a first loop, on the same stretch of road where the accident is believed to have taken place, she looked down for more than 26 seconds. Sometimes investigators thought she looked like she was smiling. In the seconds before the car collided with Herzberg, Vasquez looked down for about five seconds. Just before impact, she looked up and gasped.

The media came across the story the next day. Right away, experts were cited to castigate Arizona’s lax regulatory environment, calling for a nationwide moratorium on testing and saying deaths are inevitable when developing such technology.

At first, Vasquez says, she was reassured by the public stance of the police. Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It is very clear that it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any mode (autonomous or motorized) depending on how it came from the shadows to the roadway.” Uber, she said, “probably wouldn’t be at fault,” though she wouldn’t rule out a charge for the human driver.

After that interview, Moir told me, emails filled with “excruciating rage” flooded his inbox, accusing Moir of complicity in Tempe’s self-driving experiments and blaming Herzberg for his own death. People were angry and wanted accountability. As the hours passed, reporters began digging up as many details about Vasquez as they could, including information about an 18-year-old crime for which she had served just under four years in prison.

By the end of the day, a search warrant had been issued for any cell phone Vasquez had with her in the Volvo “to determine if Rafaela was distracted.” Maybe that would show what he was so interested in next to his knee. The warrant also listed the crime currently under investigation: manslaughter while driving a vehicle.

two nights later the accident, a trio of police officers gathered outside room 227 of a Motel 6 in Tucson. Vasquez had recorded herself because, she said, reporters were crowding her apartment. The first few days had put her in shock. “I knew it all happened; I just couldn’t believe this was happening. I was shocked.” Now, as she greeted the cops, she seemed calm but slightly nervous; her attorney didn’t want her to answer any questions, she told them. They were there to put her She initially told officers she only had her work phone with her in the car during the accident, but eventually handed over two LG phones – the one she used for work , with a black case, she explained to them, and her staff, in a metal case.

The following morning, data extracted by police showed no calls made or text messages sent in the minutes before the crash. Then, according to police reports, the cops headed for the apps. Were videos broadcast at the time of the crash? Search warrants went to Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.

Tempe police were also considering whether to release Volvo’s dashcam footage of the moments leading up to the crash. Maricopa County attorney Bill Montgomery told them the release of the video, who was then in police custody, could compromise their suspect’s right to a fair trial. But Moir says the police were under “tremendous” pressure from the public to do so, and they wanted to show there was nothing to hide; then the police tweeted the images. Suddenly, the world could see both Vasquez and Herzberg in the seconds before impact. Joe Guy, an operative in Tempe, got together with others who had been to Ghost Town, and they watched Vasquez’s video. “Most of us,” he said, “we were like, ‘What the fuck was she looking at?'”

As the investigation intensified, half a dozen Advanced Technologies Group employees from other offices arrived in Tempe. At the police garage, the cops stood by while the company downloaded data from the seized car so they could analyze what the system had done that night.

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