Arizona

Uber Backup Driver Indicted in 2018 Self-Driving Crash That Killed Woman

The Uber self-driving car after its impact with pedestrian Elaine Herzberg on March 18.
The Uber self-driving car after its impact with pedestrian Elaine Herzberg on March 18. Tempe Police
click to enlarge The Uber self-driving car after its impact with pedestrian Elaine Herzberg on March 18. - TEMPE POLICE
The Uber self-driving car after its impact with pedestrian Elaine Herzberg on March 18.
Tempe Police
A Maricopa County grand jury has charged a former self-driving car backup driver with negligent homicide over a March 18, 2018, crash in Tempe that killed a homeless woman.

As internal video of the Uber car showed, Rafaela Vasquez, a 46-year-old transgender woman still legally known as Rafael Stuart Vasquez, had been looking down below the dashboard repeatedly in the seconds before the Uber's converted Volvo SUV, in autonomous mode, struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, who was 49.

Tempe police found in its investigation that Vasquez's personal cell phone had been streaming a TV show at the time of the crash.

“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” county attorney Allister Adel said in a statement. “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.”

Vasquez pleaded not guilty at a September 15 arraignment before Commissioner Richard Hinz, who ordered that she be released with an ankle monitor, Adel's statement said.

click to enlarge Rafaela Vasquez is captured before or at impact. - TEMPE POLICE
Rafaela Vasquez is captured before or at impact.
Tempe Police
The case drew worldwide attention during a time when the multi-billion-dollar autonomous vehicle industry had been conducting experiments on the streets in several states, including in Arizona, where Governor Doug Ducey had invited Uber with the promise of looser regulation.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in November following a lengthy investigation. It concluded the crash was primarily caused by "the failure of the vehicle operator to monitor the driving environment and the operation of the automated driving system because she was visually distracted throughout the trip by her personal cell phone."

Herzberg had been walking her bicycle across Mill Avenue just south of Curry Road at about 10 p.m. when Uber's Volvo SUV slammed into her at 39 mph. She died at a hospital soon after.

Numerous factors led to the tragedy, the NTSB probe found.

In 2018, a preliminary report found that the vehicle didn't apply its brakes before hitting Herzberg. Uber had disconnected the Volvo's factory-installed crash avoidance system. While the Uber vehicle's autonomous system did detect Herzberg before the impact, the vehicle — and Uber — relied on Vasquez to take action if an emergency arose.

Vasquez denied to investigators on the night of the crash that she was looking at her phone at the time.

"Had the vehicle operator been attentive, she would likely have had sufficient time to detect and react to the crossing pedestrian to avoid the crash or mitigate the impact," the November 2019 NTSB report stated. "The vehicle operator’s prolonged visual distraction, a typical effect of automation complacency, led to her failure to detect the pedestrian in time to avoid the collision."

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk decided in March 2019 that Uber itself had not committed a crime in Herzberg's death. She took the case last year because former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, now a state Supreme Court justice, had a conflict of interest due to his office's work with Uber.

Vasquez has a pretrial hearing set for October 27.

Court records show that Chandler defense attorney Albert Morrison is representing Vasquez; Morrison did not immediately return a phone call. Phoenix New Times also reached out to Uber, and will update this story with their responses.

See the indictment below:

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern