Driver in Self-Driving Uber Crash Charged with Homicide

Driver in Self-Driving Uber Crash Charged with Homicide

A Volvo self-driving SUV, similar to the one that struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018.

Remember way back when an Uber autonomous vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian? That was 2018, and on Tuesday, the driver was finally charged.

To refresh – a couple years back, an Uber “self-driving” Volvo SUV struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The “safety driver,” Rafaela Vasquez, initially claimed that her personal and business weren’t in use until after the crash, but video from inside the vehicle showed that her head was down for about 7 of the 22 minutes prior to the crash (looking up .5 seconds before her vehicle struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg).

It’s important to stress the term “safety driver” because, at the time of the crash, the vehicle was in “computer mode,” which disables automatic braking and is only partially autonomous. The driver still needs to maintain control at all times, and Uber prohibits cell-phone usage while behind the wheel of its self-driving vehicles.

And while an Arizona prosecutor’s office ruled in 2019 that Uber wouldn’t face criminal liability for the incident, Rafaela Vasquez has been charged with negligent homicide.

“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,” said the Maricopa County attorney, Allister Adel, in a statement.

And there’s the hitch – while I doubt the attorney’s statement, alone, will create a legal precedent, she makes a very general reference to drivers and cars (with no distinction between regular and self-driving vehicles), and a ton of people will insist that “autonomous” vehicles shouldn’t put fellow drivers and pedestrians at risk until the cars can actually make every important decision for itself.

Then again, self-driving cars can function far more autonomously than “computer mode” allows, and we may be setting ourselves up for failure by putting humans behind the wheel of a partially autonomous vehicle. Humans are already prone to distraction, and teasing them with a half-measure like this could lead to more death and destruction before cars really can save us from ourselves.