Uber found not criminally liable in last year’s self-driving car death

Mind the walkway.
Mind the walkway.
Image: REUTERS/Natalie Behring
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Uber has been found not criminally liable in a fatal crash last year involving one of its self-driving cars in Tempe, Arizona.

Yavapai county attorney Sheila Sullivan Polk said in a letter (pdf) dated March 4 that her office found “no basis for criminal liability for the Uber corporation” in the death of Elaine Herzberg, 49, the first known pedestrian to die in an incident involving a driverless car. Maricopa county, which includes Tempe, had referred the case to another county last year because of a conflict.

Polk said her office concluded that the “collision video, as it displays, likely does not accurately depict the events that occurred.” She didn’t elaborate further on possible discrepancies, but recommended Tempe police get an expert analysis of what the vehicle’s driver should have seen at the time of the accident, given vehicle speed, lighting conditions, and other factors.

Uber declined to comment.

The March 2018 crash cast a pall over Uber’s driverless program, which had only just emerged from a bitter lawsuit with Alphabet subsidiary Waymo over alleged theft of trade secrets. Uber’s Volvo was operating in autonomous mode when it struck Herzberg as she crossed a road outside of a crosswalk at night. Immediately after the incident, Uber grounded all its self-driving car tests on public roads—in Tempe, Pittsburgh, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Toronto—and didn’t resume them until late December.

Uber settled with Herzberg’s family on undisclosed terms a few weeks after the crash.

Details released in a Tempe police report in June suggested the driver may have been at fault. Video footage showed Rafaela Vasquez, the vehicle’s assigned safety monitor that night, repeatedly glancing down and away from the road. Additional information obtained by police suggested Vasquez was watching an episode of NBC talent show The Voice at the time of the collision. Vasquez could face charges of vehicular manslaughter.

The incident and subsequent police investigation led Uber to overhaul its safety protocols for driverless cars, including the safety monitor role. In July, Uber laid off about 100 autonomous vehicle operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The company said it had eliminated the position and replaced it with a “mission specialist” role that required more advanced training.

Herzberg’s daughter and husband sued the city of Tempe for $10 million last month, alleging the city created a dangerous situation by laying a brick pathway across a median where people were not supposed to cross the road.