On Sunday night, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was killed by an Uber self-driving car in Tempe, Arizona. A major argument in Uber’s defense has been that the road was so dark that even a driver who was paying attention would not have seen Herzberg seconds before the crash.
Herzberg “came from the shadows right into the streets,” said Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir tell them San Francisco Chronicle on monday “The driver said it was like a flash.”
When police released footage from Uber’s on-board camera on Wednesday, it seemed to support this view somewhat. In the video, Herzberg’s feet are only shown about 1.4 seconds before the final frame of the video. Before that point, he appeared in the shadows.
But later, people in the Tempe area started making their own videos—videos that made it very different in that way.
In this late night video, posted to YouTube by Brian Kaufman on Wednesday, the scene of the crash can be seen around 0:33. Roadside features—including curbs, signs, and bushes—are clearly visible. There are no pedestrians walking into the street during the video, but it looks like Herzberg would have been exposed a lot earlier if the Uber video had been shot with this camera.
Another YouTuber, Dana Black, posted this video. His camera work isn’t as good as Kaufman’s — the video is choppy and he doesn’t hold his camera steady. But your video supports the same basic conclusion. “It’s not as dark as that video makes it out to be,” Black says in the video as he drives past the spot on the road where Herzberg was hit (around 0:33). “My picture is from my Pixel XL and it looks like real life,” he wrote in the YouTube description.
To be fair, there are other cars on the road in Black video, which can add some lighting. But Kaufman’s car appears to be the only vehicle on the road, and visibility is still better than Uber’s dashcam video.
The headlights should flash more than two seconds ahead of the car
It’s no surprise that the road is more lit than the Uber video makes it out to be. Think about it: an Uber car is going 38 miles per hour (61km/h), and people on black country roads are driving faster than that all the time. That would be pretty absurd if—as the video implies—the headlights couldn’t light the road two seconds ahead at that speed.
The video implies that the Uber car’s headlights are less than 110 feet (33 meters) away. For comparison, here is a diagram from the Insurance Institute for Road Safety showing the headlight dimensions for the car in question, a Volvo XC90:
The IIHS rated the XC90 with a range of just under 250 feet (76 meters) with “low beams” on. The car’s headlights were rated poorly by the IIHS compared with other cars on the market. However, 250 feet is more than 4 seconds of electricity for a car driving 38 miles per hour. If the Uber car’s headlights didn’t shine on Herzberg until less than two seconds before the crash, there was something wrong with them.
A more likely explanation is that the dashcam of the Uber vehicle is not configured for night recording, and so the video gives an impression of where the light is and how much warning the driver has.
And even if it’s true that the road isn’t lit, it’s not clear whether that will stop Uber. Uber cars have lidar and radar sensors in addition to cameras, and those sensors don’t need ambient light to work. So the vehicle should have seen Herzberg even if the road was dark.
Also, interior dashcam footage shows the driver looking down for nearly five seconds before the crash—so he likely would have missed Herzberg no matter how well-lit the road was.
Update: First this story shows a generic IIHS diagram on headlight distance. But after going up my colleague Jonathan Gitlin pointed me to a specific picture-XC90. So I replaced the diagram and updated the paragraphs on both sides accordingly.