An Uber safety driver was just charged with negligent homicide for the fatal 2018 crash

The safety driver who was riding in an autonomous Uber when it struck and killed a pedestrian has been charged with negligent homicide. Uber is not being charged.

By Aimee Pearcy , written on September 16, 2020

From The News Desk

The morning after an autonomous Uber vehicle killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe on March 18, 2018, Police Chief Sylvia Moir blamed the victim. 

She told a newspaper: “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.” 

A few days later, the footage was made available by Tempe Police:

Police have since said that the crash was “entirely avoidable”

Two years on, and Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel’s office has announced that Uber backup driver Rafaela Vasquez, 46, has been charged with negligent homicide.

Investigators said that data from Vasquez’s phone suggested she was distracted by watching a video of The Voice on her phone, which caused her to divert her attention from the road. As a result, she did not brake until it was too late. 

Vasquez has pleaded not guilty. She faces further investigation and a trial on February 11, 2021. 

Uber, however, will not be charged.

And yet, a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released in 2019 found a number of safety issues with Uber. It was revealed that the car saw Herzberg but did not automatically stop. The software in the modified Volvo XC90 did not accurately identify Herzberg as a pedestrian. 

Automatic emergency braking systems had been deactivated by Uber, and the vehicle was reliant on the back-up driver. Uber was criticized by the NTSB for its "inqdequate safety culture":

“At the time of the crash, the Uber Advanced Technologies Group had an inadequate safety culture, exhibited by a lack of risk assessment mechanisms, of oversight of vehicle operators, and of personnel with backgrounds in safety management.”

The report also concluded that a toxicology report showed that the pedestrian had tested positive for methamphetamine and marijuana: 

“The pedestrian’s decision to cross the street, and her failure to take evasive action before the collision, could be attributed to the impairing levels of methamphetamine found in her body. The NTSB concludes that the pedestrian’s unsafe behavior in crossing the street in front of the approaching vehicle at night and at a location without a crosswalk violated Arizona statutes and was possibly due to diminished perception and judgment resulting from drug use.”

Following the incident, Uber immediately halted self-driving tests. When they resumed, safety policies were much more stringent, and two safety drivers were required in each vehicle instead of just one. But it was too late for Vasquez.

There are multiple factors that led to Herzberg's death: the technology, the victim, the driver, the corporation, and the city itself. 

As pointed out by Alex Hern, pinning the blame on Vasquez alone is an example of a ‘moral crumple zone’ -- a term outlined by Madeleine Clare Elish in a paper in 2019: 

“I introduce the concept of a moral crumple zone to describe how responsibility for an action may be misattributed to a human actor who had limited control over the behavior of an automated or autonomous system. 

Just as the crumple zone in a car is designed to absorb the force of impact in a crash, the human in a highly complex and automated system may become simply a component—accidentally or intentionally—that bears the brunt of the moral and legal responsibilities when the overall system malfunctions. 

While the crumple zone in a car is meant to protect the human driver, the moral crumple zone protects the integrity of the technological system, at the expense of the nearest human operator.”

 In this case, it was Rafaela Vasquez, a minimum-wage employee, who protected Uber, a multi-billion dollar corporation.

A few months ago, Jack Stilgoe wrote about the problems with self-driving car hype, and why the problems with the industry are more significant than any of us thought -- and this case alone highlights exactly why driverless vehicles are still years away.

Whichever way it goes, this case will set an important precedent for the future of self-driving vehicles. 

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