The backup Uber driver for a self-driving vehicle that killed a pedestrian in 2018 pleaded guilty to endangerment in the first fatal collision involving an autonomous car. Rafaela Vasquez, 49, was sentenced to three years of supervised probation for the crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. Vasquez was supposed to take control of the vehicle if anything went wrong, but authorities say she was streaming a TV show on her phone at the time of the collision. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Vasquez’s failure to monitor the road was the main cause of the crash. By James Gordon For Dailymail.com Associated Press reported
Rafaela Vasquez, the backup Uber driver for a self-driving vehicle that caused the first fatal collision involving a fully autonomous car, pleaded guilty to endangerment in Maricopa County Superior Court on Friday. The judge accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Vasquez to three years of supervised probation for the crash that resulted in the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.
During the incident on March 18, 2018, Vasquez claimed that Herzberg “came out of nowhere” and that she did not see her before the collision on a darkened street in Tempe, Arizona. Vasquez, who was acting as the backup safety driver for Uber’s self-driving test vehicle, was supposed to take control of the vehicle if any issues arose. However, authorities discovered that she was streaming the television show The Voice on a phone and looking down moments before the collision occurred.
Vasquez had initially been charged with negligent homicide, but she pleaded guilty to an undesignated felony, which could be reclassified as a misdemeanor if she completes her probation. Her defense attorneys argued that Uber should share some responsibility for the collision, citing the company’s failure to provide a second employee in the vehicle. They suggested that it was only a matter of time before such an incident would occur.
Prosecutors did not file criminal charges against Uber as a corporation, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that Vasquez’s failure to monitor the road was the primary cause of the crash. The NTSB also highlighted Uber’s inadequate safety procedures, ineffective oversight of drivers, Herzberg’s decision to cross the street outside of a crosswalk, and the Arizona Department of Transportation’s insufficient oversight of autonomous vehicle testing as contributing factors.
The incident involving Herzberg’s death had far-reaching consequences, leading to a pause in Uber’s self-driving vehicle tests in various cities and resulting in the company’s decision to sell off its self-driving car division in 2020. The tragedy also prompted increased scrutiny of autonomous vehicles and raised concerns about their safety.
Vasquez’s prior criminal history, including convictions for making false statements when obtaining unemployment benefits and attempted armed robbery, was also revealed during the court proceedings. She had served over four years in prison before starting work as an Uber driver.
The case underscores the ongoing debates surrounding autonomous vehicles and their potential risks. Accidents and deaths involving autonomous or driver-assist systems have sparked controversy and raised questions about liability and safety in recent years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently investigating Tesla’s self-driving technology following multiple crashes and safety complaints from Tesla drivers..