Backup driver in 2018 Uber self-driving crash pleads guilty

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) -The backup safety driver behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber Technologies test vehicle that struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018 pleaded guilty on Friday and was sentenced to probation, prosecutors said.

Rafaela Vasquez, who was charged with negligent homicide in 2020, pleaded guilty to endangerment, a reduced charge, and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, the Maricopa County Attorney’s office said. Uber and a lawyer for Vasquez did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Elaine Herzberg died after she was struck while walking a bicycle across a street at night. The first recorded death involving a self-driving vehicle prompted significant safety concerns about the nascent autonomous vehicle industry.

“The defendant in this matter was responsible for the operation of a vehicle on our city streets that ended with a woman being killed,” Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said in a statement. “We believe the judge ordered an appropriate sentence based on the mitigating and aggravating factors.”

A Tempe police report said Vasquez was repeatedly looking down instead of keeping her eyes on the road. Prosecutors in March 2019 said Uber was not criminally liable in the crash.

Police said previously the crash was “entirely avoidable” and that Vasquez was streaming “The Voice” TV program at the time of the crash.

In 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) faulted Vasquez’s inactions and Uber for inadequate attention to safety and decisions in the company’s autonomous vehicle development.

The NTSB said the probable cause was Vasquez’s failure to monitor the driving environment “because she was visually distracted throughout the trip by her personal cell phone.” She was supposed to act in the event of an emergency.

Uber made a series of development decisions that contributed to the crash’s cause, the NTSB said. The software in the modified Volvo XC90 did not properly identify Herzberg as a pedestrian and did not address “operators’ automation complacency.”

In 2020, Uber announced the sale of its autonomous driving unit to self-driving car startup Aurora for $4 billion.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Richard Chang)