On August 27, 2018, the first self-driving vehicle fatality occurred in Tempe, Arizona. More than two years later, Rafaela Vasquez, the backup Uber driver who was monitoring the autonomous vehicle at the time of the crash, has been charged with negligent homicide. She is accused of being distracted and failing to monitor the safety of the Uber vehicle, resulting in the death of Elaine Herzberg, 49, of Phoenix, AZ.
Uber driver claims she didn’t use cell phone
Uber backup driver Vasquez, 46, pleaded not guilty at a September 15, 2020 hearing. She told investigators that she was not using her cell phone before the crash. However, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, she was watching “The Voice” on her cell phone at the moment of the accident and failed to monitor the road. As a result, the autonomous Uber SUV struck and killed Hertzberg.
The National Transportation Safety Board also cited several contributing factors to the crash. These included:
- Uber’s inadequate safety procedures
- Uber’s ineffective driver oversight
- The victim being outside the crosswalk
- The Arizona Department of Transportation’s lack of oversight of autonomous vehicles and testing
In addition, the NTSB said Uber’s decision to deactivate it’s automatic emergency braking system and instead rely on human backup drivers was a contributing factor to the accident.
Details of the Uber vehicle accident
Uber’s system did detect Herzberg 5.6 seconds before she was struck. However, it did not determine if she was a pedestrian, bicyclist, or unknown object. It also did not detect that she was headed into the vehicle’s path.
According to court records, Vasquez has a criminal history, having spent four years in prison. This was for making false statements to obtain unemployment benefits, and attempted armed robbery, both felony convictions. According to a toxicology report, Herzberg had methamphetamine in her system.
Uber was not criminally charged
In March of 2019, prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the Uber rideshare corporation in the matter of Herzberg’s death. This decision was made by Yavapai County attorney Sheila Polk. The prosecutor’s office in Phoenix declined to be involved with the case, citing a possible conflict of interest. He had previously been involved in an Uber public safety campaign.
After the decision was made to not criminally charge the Uber corporation, the case was returned to the Phoenix prosecutors office, since the lack of a charge eliminated the potential for conflict of interest.
Autonomous Uber vehicles pulled after fatal crash
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has prohibited Uber from continuing their tests after the SUV ran over Herzberg. Uber removed its self-driving cars from Arizona the day before the NTSB issued its first report on the accident. This eliminated about 300 jobs in Arizona for Uber backup drivers and others in the autonomous vehicle testing program.
A trial when Vasquez will face the charges of negligent homicide is scheduled for Feb. 11, 2021.
Self-driving vehicle research and testing goes on
Although the fatality had a big impact on the auto and rideshare industries, autonomous vehicle research and development by Uber and Lyft continues. In Palo Alto, California, Lyft has a development lab for self-driving cars staffed with over 400 engineers. Instead of developing a self-driving car from the ground up, it is developing systems to add to existing vehicles to act as the “brains”.
As of the end of 2019, Lyft has added these systems to Ford Fusions and Chrysler Pacificas. It has special permission from Palo Alto to test these autonomous vehicles, with human safety drivers in the cars, in a very limited area.