Uber back-up driver charged in self-driving car death

Olivia Rudgard
·2-min read
This March 18, 2018 file photo from video from a mounted camera provided by the Tempe Police Department shows an interior view moments before an Uber SUV hit a woman in Tempe, Ariz. - Tempe Police Department 
This March 18, 2018 file photo from video from a mounted camera provided by the Tempe Police Department shows an interior view moments before an Uber SUV hit a woman in Tempe, Ariz. - Tempe Police Department

The backup driver who was behind the wheel of an under-development Uber self-driving car that hit and killed a woman in 2018 has been charged with negligent homicide. 

Rafaela Vasquez, 46, was supposed to be supervising the Volvo SUV as it covered miles after dark outside the city of Phoenix, Arizona, in March 2018.

A police report released after the incident said she was distracted by watching TV programme "The Voice" on her phone.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, who was pushing a bicycle as she crossed, was the first pedestrian ever killed by a self-driving car. 

Announcing the charges, Maricopa County attorney Allister Adel said: “When a driver gets behind the wheel of a car, they have a responsibility to control and operate that vehicle safely and in a law-abiding manner."

Ms Vasquez, who pleaded not guilty at a court hearing on Tuesday, could face a prison sentence of four to eight years if convicted. 

Uber suspended its self-driving car programme after the crash, restarting it at the end of 2018. 

The incident raises questions about who is responsible for errors made by self-driving technology, particularly while the cars are not fully capable of self-piloting and responding to complex and dangerous situations. 

About | Vehicle autonomy levels
About | Vehicle autonomy levels

Many self-driving car companies employ workers to supervise cars equipped with their technology in order for the vehicles to learn from real-life driving situations. 

In many cases this involves sitting for long hours behind the wheel of a car, being required to pay attention, but rarely having to respond. 

Uber overhauled its self-driving programmes after the crash, introducing stricter safety standards including real-time monitoring of drivers.