Self-Driving Cars, Streaming Video: A Lethal Combination

Rafaela Vasquez, operating an Uber autonomous (self-driving) vehicle as safety backup, reportedly was viewing “The Voice” streaming video when her vehicle struck and killed Elaine Herzberg as she crossed the street with her bicycle.

You can read about the particulars of the case here.

A lengthy report from the Tempe Police Department stated: “The driver in this case could have reacted and brought the vehicle to a stop 42.61 feet prior to the pedestrian.”

Several aspects of this case relate to research in Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine, from the distraction of entertainment videos, especially when associated with driving,  to self-driving cars and the false sense of security that convenience affords.

Of special interest in this case is how Big Data analytics helped identify what distracted Vasquez moments before the crash. According to PC Mag,

During their investigation, police sent search warrants to YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu to retrieve driver Rafaela Vasquez’s viewing history at the time of the crash. YouTube and Netflix both said Vasquez was not watching anything on their services at that time. Hulu, however, said she was streaming an episode of The Voice just before the crash occurred.

Since its first publication in 2004, Interpersonal Divide has warned about everyday moments–some that require our full attention–being deemed boring because of the ubiquitous presence of consumer media. Whether checking social media in lecture or texting on route to work, technology lures us with on-demand content and insistent digital engagement. If you couple that with self-driving cars that require safety-driving human back-ups, such as Vasquez was being paid to do, you will have the inevitable result of vehicular homicide.

This just happens to be one of the first of its kind. More will follow as self-driving cars become the norm rather than the exception.

The lesson also involves Uber and its corporate responsibility to ensure that its drivers get adequate training about distracted driving in self-driving cars, putting people’s lives in the programmed hands of a machine rather than in the human ones supposedly on watch.

Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine devotes several chapters to the dangers of unmonitored technology assuming ever greater control of our lives. The first step in identifying the dangers is to understand technology’s nature, which changes everything it touches without it changing much at all. Once we acknowledge that, we can gain greater control over how we use technology–or how it uses us–in everyday activities.

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