The conclusion has finally been reached in the first deadly crash involving a self-driving vehicle, as the safety driver of an Uber autonomous car pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation.
The incident happened back in 2018 when Uber was testing its self-driving autos in Tempe, Arizona. Rafaela Vasquez, the safety driver for the experimental robo-ride project, was described by prosecutors as the car’s “peepers and listeners” but due to her “carelessness” she was playing “The Voice” on her phone during the autonomous test drive, failing to pay attention to road conditions and ultimately causing the demise of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.
Investigators said the sensors had already alerted the car before the collision with Herzberg, but the automatic braking system wasn’t triggered, and safety driver Rafaela Vasquez was preoccupied with the TV show until it was too late to brake.
The crash caused controversy, with the general belief that both the driver and the self-driving company should be held accountable for Elaine Herzberg’s death. However, in 2019 the Arizona prosecutor’s office ruled Uber would not face criminal charges for the incident.
Later that year, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated Uber and highlighted a series of safety issues within the company. The board claimed Uber’s “safety risk assessment procedures were inadequate” and that the company put too much faith in safety drivers who did not perform their duties, resulting in the tragedy.
Following the accident, Uber immediately suspended its self-driving tests. Due to public outrage, the company opted to indefinitely suspend its self-driving operations and transfer its autonomous tech to Waymo, an Alphabet-owned self-driving venture. Waymo is currently providing robotaxi services in Phoenix.
The case raises important questions about the safety of autonomous vehicles and the responsibility of the companies developing them. As self-driving technology continues to advance, it’s crucial that safety remains a top priority.