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Police chief said Uber victim "came from the shadows" -don't believeit
On Sunday night, an Uber self-driving car killed 49-year-old
Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. A key argument in Uber's
defense has been that the road was so dark that even an
attentive driver would not have spotted Herzberg in the seconds
before the crash.
Herzberg "came from the shadows right into the roadway," Tempe
police chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle on
Monday. "The driver said it was like a flash."
When police released footage from the Uber vehicle's onboard
camera on Wednesday, it seemed to somewhat support this view. In
the video, Herzberg's feet become visible only about 1.4 seconds
before the final frame of the video. Prior to that point, she
appears shrouded in shadow.
But then people in the Tempe area started making their own
videos—videos that give a dramatically different impression of
that section of roadway.
In this nighttime video, posted to YouTube by Brian Kaufman on
Wednesday, the scene of the crash can be seen around 0:33.
Features at the sides of the road—including curbs, signs, and
bushes—are clearly visible. No pedestrians walk into the road
during the video, but it seems clear that Herzberg would have
been visible much earlier if the Uber video had been taken with
Another YouTuber, Dana Black, posted this video. His camera work
isn't as good as Kaufman's—the video is blurry and he doesn't
hold his camera steady. But his video supports the same basic
conclusion. "It's not as dark as that video made it look," Black
says in the video as he drives past the point in the road where
Herzberg was hit (around 0:33). "My footage is from my Pixel XL
and looks pretty similar to real life," he writes in the YouTube
To be fair, there are a few other cars on the road in Black's
video, which might be adding some illumination. But Kaufman's
car appears to be the only vehicle on the road, and visibility
is still much better than in Uber's dashcam video.
Headlights are supposed to illuminate more than two seconds
ahead of the car
It's not surprising that the road was actually more brightly lit
than the Uber video makes out. Think about it: the Uber car was
going 38 miles per hour (61km/h), and people on pitch-black
country roads drive faster than that all the time. That would be
extremely reckless if—as the video implies—headlights can't
illuminate the road two seconds ahead at that speed.
The video implies that the Uber car's headlights had a range
under 110 feet (33 meters). For comparison, here's a diagram
from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showing
headlight ratings for the car in question, a Volvo XC90:
IIHS shows the XC90 with a range just under 250 feet (76 meters)
with "low beams" on. The car's headlights are rated poorly by
the IIHS compared with other cars on the market. Still, 250 feet
is more than 4 seconds of illumination for a car driving 38
miles per hour. If the Uber car's headlights really didn't
illuminate Herzberg until less than two seconds before the
crash, there was something seriously wrong with them.
The more likely explanation is that the Uber vehicle's dashcam
was poorly configured for nighttime recording, and so the video
gives a misleading impression of how bright the scene was and
how much warning the driver had.
And even if it's true that the road were poorly lit, it's not
clear if that would exonerate Uber. Uber's cars have lidar and
radar sensors in addition to cameras, and those sensors don't
require ambient light to function. So the vehicle should have
spotted Herzberg even if the road was pitch black.
Moreover, interior dashcam footage shows the driver looking down
for nearly five seconds just before the accident—so she likely
would have missed Herzberg no matter how good the illumination
on the road was.
Update: Originally this story featured a generic IIHS diagram on
headlight distance. But after it went up my colleague Jonathan
Gitlin pointed me to an XC90-specific diagram. So I replaced the
diagram and updated the paragraphs on either side accordingly.
sphigel Ars Centurion
JUMP TO POST
Thank you for writing this article. It was immediately obvious
to me that the Uber dashcam video was misleading. Why? Because
I've driven at night. It's really that simple. I know what it's
like to drive in pitch black with low beams on. You can still
safely drive 40 mph with the amount of illumination you get. I
also knew that the Volvo XC90 would have decent headlights
(although apparently not great) because it's a modern luxury
car. Reading accounts of people saying "I would have hit that
pedestrian too" had me bashing my head against the wall. Do
these people really think nighttime driving is as barenuckle as
the Uber dashcam video depicted? If so, then they shouldn't be
driving at night.
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