Uber backup driver charged with negligent homicide in self-driving accident

Uber's self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018 while the backup driver was distracted.

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A self driving Volvo vehicle, purchased by Uber, moves along the streets of Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S., December 1, 2017.  Photo taken on December 1, 2017.  REUTERS/Natalie Behring
A self driving Volvo vehicle, purchased by Uber, moves along the streets of Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S., December 1, 2017. Photo taken on December 1, 2017. Natalie Behring / reuters

It has been more than two years since one of Uber’s autonomous SUVs struck and killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. Last year one group of prosecutors (from another county due to a conflict of interest in the area where the crash happened) decided they would not file criminal charges against Uber, but on Tuesday a grand jury in Maricopa County charged the vehicle’s backup driver with negligent homicide.

County attorney Allister Adel said in a statement that “Distracted driving is an issue of great importance,” as a report by police and investigation by the NTSB said Rafaela Vasquez was streaming The Voice on Hulu while sitting behind the wheel of the vehicle. Vasquez pled not guilty.

The car’s software detected Herzberg more than five seconds before the crash but did not identify her as a pedestrian with a bike crossing the street away from a crosswalk. However the NTSB report went into depth saying that while the backup driver could have avoided the crash if they had been paying attention, it was “the last link in a long chain of actions and decisions made by an organization that unfortunately did not make safety the top priority.” That included Uber deactivating the Volvo SUV’s built-in automatic emergency braking system, which put all pressure on the backup driver to intervene in a situation where the self-driving rig failed.

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