Photo Credit: Victor Xok

Backup driver involved in first self-driving vehicle fatality charged with negligent homicide for being distracted before fatally striking a woman in Arizona

In what will undoubtedly be a precedent setting case, Rafaela Vasquez, the backup driver to Uber’s self-driving vehicle that struck and killed 49-year old Elaine Herzberg in August 2018, was charged with negligent homicide. She pleaded not guilty during a hearing on Tuesday.  There are several aspects of this story that I find interesting. First, it may be helpful to remind people of the incident and I include two short overview videos below.

Based on these videos, ( it appears that a technical error occurred in Uber’s self-driving systems that should have activated the braking system after detecting Ms. Herzberg crossing the road. However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded backup driver Vasquez’s failure to monitor the road as she watched the television show “The Voice” on her phone was the main cause of the crash.

Ms. Vasquez being distracted was undoubtedly a cause of the crash, but to label it as the main cause seems somewhat aggressive. The NTSB did site additional contributing factors, including Uber’s inadequate safety procedures and ineffective oversight of its drivers, Herzberg’s decision to cross the street outside of a crosswalk, and the Arizona Department of Transportation’s insufficient oversight of autonomous vehicle testing. In addition, and this is quite relevant:

[The NTSB also] concluded Uber’s deactivation of its automatic emergency braking system increased the risks associated with testing automated vehicles on public roads. Instead of the system, Uber relied on the human backup driver to intervene.

The Uber system detected Herzberg 5.6 seconds before the crash. But it failed to determine whether she was a bicyclist, pedestrian or unknown object, or that she was headed into the vehicle’s path, the board said. – CNBC

Given Ms. Vasquez is only charged at this point, not convicted, I believe a legitimate question becomes if she was alert and looking at the road would she have been able, in mere seconds, to avoid the fatal collision (the speed at the time of impact was about 40mph)? Remember, the Uber system detected Herzberg 5.6 seconds before the crash and likely in darkness, as she seems to only become visible to the naked eye mere seconds before impact. Another, perhaps controversial, aspect of the incident is that Arizona prosecutor’s office said Uber would not face criminal liability. Finally, it should be noted, Ms. Herzberg’s toxicology report tested positive for methamphetamine and Ms. Vasquez has previously spent more than four years in prison for two felony convictions.

The above scenario should have been a perfect example of why self-driving systems could be safer than human drivers (i.e. seeing objects in darkness before they become clearly visible to the naked eye), but instead it actually could delay the adoption of self-driving technology. In addition, the vast majority of the liability appears to be with the driver, setting a dangerous precedent that may make many hesitant to turn on any sort of self-driving modes their vehicle may offer in the future.