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Backup driver of an autonomous Uber pleads guilty to endangerment in pedestrian death

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

PHOENIX — The backup Uber driver for a self-driving vehicle that killed a pedestrian in suburban Phoenix in 2018 pleaded guilty Friday to endangerment in 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 crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. Vasquez told police that Herzberg "came out of nowhere" and that she didn't see Herzberg before the March 18, 2018, collision on a darkened Tempe street.

Vasquez had been charged with negligent homicide, a felony. She pleaded guilty to an undesignated felony, meaning it could be reclassified as a misdemeanor if she completes probation.

Authorities say Vasquez was streaming the television show "The Voice" on a phone and looking down in the moments before Uber's Volvo XC-90 SUV struck Herzberg, who was crossing with her bicycle.

Vasquez's attorneys said she was was looking at a messaging program used by Uber employees on a work cellphone that was on her right knee. They said the TV show was playing on her personal cellphone, which was on the passenger seat.

Defense attorney Albert Jaynes Morrison told Garbarino that Uber should share some blame for the collision as he asked the judge to sentence Vasquez to six months of unsupervised probation.

"There were steps that Uber failed to take," he said. By putting Vasquez in the vehicle without a second employee, he said. "It was not a question of if but when it was going to happen."

Prosecutors previously declined to file criminal charges against Uber, as a corporation. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Vasquez's failure to monitor the road was the main cause of the crash.

"The defendant had one job and one job only," prosecutor Tiffany Brady told the judge. "And that was to keep her eyes in the road."

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said in a statement after the hearing that her office believes the sentence was appropriate "based on the mitigating and aggravating factors."

The contributing factors cited by the NTSB included Uber's inadequate safety procedures and ineffective oversight of its 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.

The board also concluded Uber's deactivation of its 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 was not the first crash involving an Uber autonomous test vehicle. In March 2017, an Uber SUV flipped onto its side, also in Tempe when it collided with another vehicle. No serious injuries were reported, and the driver of the other car was cited for a violation.

Herzberg's death was the first involving an autonomous test vehicle but not the first in a car with some self-driving features. The driver of a Tesla Model S was killed in 2016 when his car, operating on its Autopilot system, crashed into a semitrailer 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, slammed into another car. That driver was charged in 2022 with vehicular manslaughter in what was believed to be the first felony case against a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system.

In Arizona, the Uber system detected Herzberg 5.6 seconds before the crash. But it failed to determine whether she was a bicyclist, pedestrian or unknown object, or that she was headed into the vehicle's path, the board said.


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

The death reverberated throughout the auto industry and Silicon Valley and forced other companies to slow what had been a fast march toward autonomous ride-hailing services. Uber pulled its self-driving cars out of Arizona, and then-Gov. Doug Ducey prohibited the company from continuing its tests of self-driving cars.

Vasquez had previously spent more than four years in prison for two felony convictions — making false statements when obtaining unemployment benefits and attempted armed robbery — before starting work as an Uber driver, according to court records.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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