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Safety driver at the wheel of self-driving Uber car that killed a pedestrian is charged with negligent homicide

Doesn't matter if a computer was in control, responsibility rests with the human, says prosecutor

The safety driver who was behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber car when it hit and killed a pedestrian has been charged with negligent homicide.

Prosecutors in Maricopa, Arizona, today said that following her grand jury indictment, Rafaela Vasquez will go on trial for the death of Elaine Herzberg. Vasquez, who was charged [PDF] under the name Rafael, pleaded not guilty. She was released with an ankle tracker ahead of her October 27 trial in the United States.

Herzberg was crossing the street on foot in Tempe, Arizona, at around 10pm on March 18, 2018, when she was hit by an Uber car under computer control during testing. Judging from footage taken by a video camera mounted inside the Volvo XC90 SUV, Vasquez, whose job was to watch the road and apply emergency braking for the artificially intelligent vehicle when necessary, appeared to be looking down at her phone just before the crash. Herzberg, 49, died of her injuries in hospital.

"Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community," said Allister Adel, Maricopa County attorney. "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."

While no criminal charges were brought against Uber as a company, the fallout from the accident was disastrous for its robo-ride program. Aside from the poor publicity and public outcry, the death led Arizona's governor to withdraw permission for Uber to test its vehicles on the US state's roads, and caused a larger pause – since resumed – of testing across Uber's self-driving car fleet.

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America's National Transportation Safety Board released a report in the aftermath of the crash taking Uber to task for what it found to be poor safety measures in the cars.

"Contributing to the crash was Uber Advanced Technology Group’s inadequate safety risk assessment procedures, ineffective oversight of the vehicle operators and a lack of adequate mechanisms for addressing operators’ automation complacency," the NTSB wrote, "all consequences of the division’s inadequate safety culture."

Now, some two years after the fateful collision, Vasquez is set to go on trial. If convicted of negligent homicide, the 46-year-old faces anywhere from 12 and 44 months behind bars.

Uber, meanwhile, continues with its efforts to develop self-driving cars that it would be able to use for its dial-a-ride services and completely side-step the need for human drivers. Those efforts have only become more important for Uber as it continues to fight with governments as well as some of its own drivers over whether they they should be classified as employees or contractors under labor laws.

In California, the issue is set to come to a head in a matter of weeks as the public will vote on a measure to offer Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy app developers an exemption from the state's laws on worker classification. ®

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