TEMPE, Ariz.—The test operator in the Uber Technologies Inc. self-driving car that killed an Arizona woman was a felon with a history of traffic citations who wasn't watching the road before the accident happened, facts that raise new questions about the company's testing process for autonomous technology.
The accident and its resulting disclosures are a potential setback in the progress of selfdriving cars and to Uber, which has grappled with a number of problems including legal woes and clashes among its board and investors that led to the replacement last year of its founder and chief executive.
The driver, whom police have identified as Rafael Vasquez, is seen in a video looking down for several seconds as the car moved at about 40 miles an hour, right before it hit and killed a pedestrian.
According to Arizona Department of Corrections records, the driver was convicted and received a five-year sentence in Maricopa County for attempted armed robbery in 2000 and served the sentence concurrently with a one-year sentence for a false-statement conviction in 1999. In 1998, the driver pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended, revoked or canceled license in Tucson City Court and was cited for failing to produce proof of insurance and for driving without a current registration.
The case wasn't fully resolved until 2012. The driver couldn't be reached. An Uber spokeswoman said the driver, who identifies as Rafaela, fell well within the company's standard background- check requirements and remains an employee.
Uber generally screens for violations or criminal history dating back seven years, part of a policy that gives a second chance to potential drivers who made prior bad decisions, according to the spokeswoman.
More than three moving violations within the past three years is typically enough to disqualify a potential driver, according to Uber's policies. Uber declined to comment further.
Uber has tussled with regulators about background checks of drivers.
In November, Colorado officials fined Uber $8.9 million after discovering it had allowed several dozen drivers onto its service who had prior felony convictions, a violation of state rules for ride-hailing firms. Uber attributed the hirings to a “process error.” It has resisted allowing fingerprinting in most markets, saying the process can be lengthy and produce misleading results.
Drivers of autonomous vehicles, called test operators or safety drivers, are trained to monitor the road and to take the wheel or hit the brake when the vehicles, which are still in test mode, act erratically. Uber gives test operators three weeks of training before they go out on the road.
“There are no industry standards on how attentive a safety driver in...an automated vehicle should be,” said Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab whose expertise involves driver safety and vehicle automation.
“If you asked for a safety driver training document from a startup (even a well-funded one), you will realize they don't have one,” said Srikanth Saripalli, co-director at Texas A&M University's Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems.
The accident also revives debate about whether humans and robots can operate a car together. Experts question whether a human can handle when the car's brain hands over control in a complex driving situation, especially when there is little time to react.
Uber says background checks of the selfdriving car's operator met its guidelines.
“This event only highlights the handover problem,” Missy Cummings, a professor of mechanical engineering and material science at Duke University, said in an email. “If trained 'safety' drivers can not make themselves pay attention, how will the rest of us fare?”
Her research has found people have difficulty remaining vigilant when monitoring automation for long periods. Her group studied 27 subjects during four hours of simulated driving and found vigilance decreased in about 21 minutes on average.
Waymo, which began working on autonomous vehicle technology as a Google project in 2009, concluded driver inattention was a concern and focused on developing vehicles with no humans behind the wheel.
Executives had put test vehicles into the hands of employees and instructed them to monitor the roadway. The employees were video recorded.
The videos showed employees quickly became comfortable with the self-driving technology and their attention wandered. Videos show one employee sleeping; another applied makeup.
Sunday's fatal crash, thought to be the first by a self-driving vehicle, follows a tumultuous period at Uber in which its co-founder and chief executive, Travis Kalanick, was pushed out. Under a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber has tried to steer a new course and shed its reputation for cutting corners.
Uber has poured billions into autonomous vehicle development. Mr. Kalanick called it “existential” to Uber's future. Fully autonomous vehicles could eliminate about three-quarters of the cost of a typical Uber ride by removing the human driver, Uber has said.
Internally, though, some executives have called on Uber to consider paring back spending on it as the firm seeks an initial public offering in 2019.
Uber said it has a total of some 400 drivers in Tempe, Toronto, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, where it is testing self-driving cars. It has pulled the vehicles from public roads while the crash investigation continues.
Industry players say the testing of self-driving cars on U.S. roads is bound to continue.
“Nobody knows any other option,” Brad Templeton, an expert in autonomous vehicle development and former consultant on Alphabet Inc.'s self-driving car project, said in an email. “It's the only way to make them better.”