Self-driving Uber crash backup driver pleads guilty

PHOENIX (AP) – The replacement Uber driver for a self-driving vehicle killed a pedestrian in a Phoenix suburb in 2018 pleaded guilty Friday to endangering the first fatal collision involving a fully autonomous car.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David Garbarino, who accepted the plea agreement, sentenced Rafaela Vasquez, 49, to three years of supervised probation for the accident that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. Vasquez told police that Herzberg “came out of nowhere” and that she did not see Herzberg before the March 18, 2018 crash on a dark Tempe street.

Vasquez had been charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony. She pleaded guilty to an unspecified felony, meaning it could be classified as a misdemeanor when she completes her suspended sentence.

Authorities say Vasquez streamed the TV show “The Voice” on the phone and looking down in the moments before Uber’s Volvo XC-90 SUV pulled into Herzberg, who was crossing the street on her bike.

Rafaela Vasquez pauses during a court hearing before accepting a plea agreement to three years of supervised probation for the Uber autonomous vehicle crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Phoenix on Friday.
Rafaela Vasquez pauses during a court hearing before accepting a plea agreement to three years of supervised probation for the Uber autonomous vehicle crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Phoenix on Friday.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Lawyers for Vasquez said she was watching a news program used by Uber employees on a work cellphone that was on her right knee. They said the TV show was on their personal cell phone, which was on the passenger seat.

Defense attorney Albert Jaynes Morrison told Garbarino that Uber should have some complicity in the collision when he asked the judge to sentence Vasquez to six months of unsupervised probation.

“There were steps Uber didn’t take,” he said. By putting Vasquez in the vehicle without a second employee, he said. “It wasn’t a question of if, but when it would happen.”

prosecutors before declined to file criminal charges against Uber, as a corporation. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Vasquez’s failure to patrol the road was the primary cause of the accident.

“The defendant only had one job,” prosecutor Tiffany Brady told the judge. “And that was to keep their eyes on the road.”

Maricopa County Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell said in a statement after the hearing that her office believes the verdict is fair “based on the mitigating and aggravating factors.”

Factors cited by the NTSB included Uber’s inadequate safety procedures and ineffective oversight of its drivers, Herzberg’s decision to cross the road outside of a crosswalk, and the Arizona Department of Transportation’s inadequate oversight of autonomous vehicle testing.

The board also concluded that Uber has disabled its services automatic emergency braking system increased the risks associated with testing automated vehicles on public roads. Instead of the system, Uber relied on the human backup driver to intervene.

It wasn’t the first crash involving an Uber autonomous test vehicle. Also in Tempe, in March 2017, an Uber SUV rolled over on its side when it collided with another vehicle. No serious injuries were reported and the driver of the other car was reported for an offence.

Herzberg’s death was the first to involve an autonomous test vehicle, but not the first in a car with some self-driving capabilities. The driver of a Tesla Model S was killed in 2016 when his Autopilot-powered car crashed into a semi-truck in Florida.

Nine months after Herzberg’s death, in December 2019, two people were killed in California when a Tesla on Autopilot ran a red light and crashed into another car. This driver was raised in 2022 for negligent homicide in what is probably the first criminal case against a driver who used a partially automated driving system.

In Arizona, the Uber system spotted Herzberg 5.6 seconds before the crash. However, it could not be determined whether the woman was a cyclist, a pedestrian or an unknown object, or whether she had gotten into the vehicle’s lane, the authority said.

The backup driver was there to take over the vehicle if systems failed.

The death resonated throughout the auto industry and Silicon Valley, forcing other companies to slow the rapid march toward autonomous ride-hailing services. Uber retired its self-driving cars from Arizona, and the then-governor. Doug Ducey banned the company from continuing its testing of self-driving cars.

According to court documents, Vasquez had previously served more than four years in prison on two convictions for misrepresentation when applying for unemployment benefits and an attempted armed robbery before accepting work as an Uber driver.

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