By on September 16, 2020

The Uber test vehicle that struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, has been under public scrutiny since March of 2018. But we never heard a lot about the safety driver behind the wheel. So much attention was given to addressing whether or not the autonomous systems on the SUV should or could have seen Elaine Herzberg  and stopped the car before the tragedy occurred  that it became the overriding narrative.

But it really shouldn’t have, as some of the earliest video footage appeared to show that Uber’s safety operator had entirely tuned out of the driving experience in the moments leading up to the incident. Fortunately, Maricopa County Superior Court and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were keeping tabs while the rest of us were not. In fact, the former decided to charge Rafael Vasquez (who also goes by Rafaela) with negligent homicide late last month.

Vasquez pled not guilty during an initial court appearance on Tuesday and was released with the trial scheduled for February of 2021. According to Reuters, the court stipulated that Vasquez would need to wear an ankle monitor until things were settled. Unfortunately, the long term prognosis is not good.

While the NTSB was highly critical of Uber’s safety systems and testing routine, Vasquez probably received the harshest review following its extensive investigation into the incident. In November, the board announced the driver’s failure to act was ultimately what caused the entire incident “because she was visually distracted throughout the trip by her personal cell phone.”

A Tempe police report likewise stated that Vasquez was repeatedly looking down instead of maintaining focus on the road ahead, which became Uber’s out from having to accept any liabilities. Local investigations previously suggested that the crash was “entirely avoidable” and noted that Vasquez was streaming “The Voice” TV program at the time of the crash.

“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” said Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. “When a driver gets behind the wheel of a car, they have a responsibility to control and operate that vehicle safely.”

[Images: Uber]

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24 Comments on “Uber Safety Driver Charged With Negligent Homicide in Arizona Test Incident...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I call BS. It really comes down to the SAE autonomous level Uber claimed this vehicle’s system could do.

    If it was merely Level 2, then the driver is always at fault (e.g. Autopilot). If they were testing a Level 4 or 5 system, the driver doesn’t need to be involved. You can’t have it both ways – blaming the system for not seeing a jaywalking pedestrian, and them blaming the driver for the same thing.

    • 0 avatar

      Wrong. “Testing” means the person in the car Always has to be involved.

      • 0 avatar

        This. The individual in the car had one job here, *monitor the test*. The fact that the test setup didn’t monitor the driver is a contributing factor here, but the test driver should be, well, test driving, not clocking in road hours as a passenger, IMHO.

        • 0 avatar

          Too bad a person had to die to show how half-assessed this “emerging technology is;” perhaps more deaths can be avoided because of this jaywalker, who apparently didn’t have the smarts to even jay-walk safely, died.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX


        You’ve answered my question, then. But as Imagefont says below, Uber has no business performing tests on ‘live’ streets, endangering the public with beta products.

        And as Land Ark says below, much will hinge on her testimony of what Uber told/trained her about the system’s capabilities.

        Tesla escapes liability because they force drivers to agree to take over control at any time, even though they quickly become complacent. If Uber didn’t make that requirement clear to this driver (which her lawyer will certainly claim), then the focus may go back on Uber.

        • 0 avatar

          “Uber has no business performing tests on ‘live’ streets, endangering the public with beta products.”

          Actually, what they were doing was alpha or even pre-alpha. You can and should do real world testing at that stage. Just don’t connect it to the controls and have a human doing the actual driving. Unless you can get your hands on that Tesla data.

  • avatar

    Everyone who drives (and fails to pay attention while driving) a so-called self driving vehicle (Tesla) and is subsequently involved in an accident, and who isn’t killed, always tries to blame the car. Every Tesla driver who has ever crashed while using Autopilot, and who was doing something besides paying attention to the road, attempts to put 100% of the blame for the crash on the car, even though the cars manufacturer specifically states that the car is not competent to drive itself.
    This shared responsibility, trusting the car to drive itself some of the time, is the real problem. You can’t share that responsibility. You can’t trust humans to monitor diligently and intervene instantly while allowing the car to kinda sorta drive itself some of the time.
    Personally I think cars with driving aids / features should NOT be allowed any control of the steering wheel, forcing the driver to control the car 100% of the time, not just trusting them to do so.
    This is a failure of the inattentive driver too lazy to pay attention, failure of Uber who didn’t give a damn who they killed, and failure of government over-site to make rules ensuring public safety.
    Testing your buggy beta software and half a__ed semi-autonomous wet dream tech on the street where someone is inevitably going to get killed is the wrong thing to do.

  • avatar

    Glad she was charged, she had a job to do and decided to watch tv on her phone instead. She was testing a prototype and they needed a non-distracted driver. No different than if she was working around dangerous equipment in a factory and decided to check out.

    In addition to claiming someone’s life, she probably set back autonomous driving 10+ years.

    • 0 avatar

      “she probably set back autonomous driving 10+ years” …

      Not a bad thing, really.

      • 0 avatar

        ^ This.

      • 0 avatar

        Considering people like her will continue to drive while playing with their phones, I’d say it means more deaths. It made everybody irrationally scared of autonomous driving.

        I enjoy driving and plan to keep doing it myself, but I have ZERO doubt self-driving cars out of beta testing will have fewer accidents than than those caused by human error.

    • 0 avatar

      She wasn’t driving. She wasn’t test driving. She was sitting in a car for hours watching the car drive itself. Try sitting in a car with a friend driving for several hours, and during that ride you can’t talk to them, can’t use your phone, can’t do anything but keep your eyes on the road. Then do it again. And again. She was set up to fail, because Uber cheaped out on their testing protocol.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I think this will be a hard charge to stick. In order to generate reasonable doubt the defense needs to show that due to the negligent acts by the pedestrian it would have been reasonable for even an attentive full-control driver to not have had time to react. Not saying I agree with it, but I think there’s enough there to create doubt. She was crossing outside of a crosswalk in the dark* on a dark* street without regard to oncoming traffic. And I can’t recall if there was ever any report of drugs/alcohol in her system but they’ll use that too if so.

    What I think will be interesting is Vasquez’s testimony on what training was really like for Uber testers. If there’s proof that everyone in charge was anything other than strict about paying full attention, like say a supervisor saying off the cuff that you could practically do your nails because the car does everything for you, I predict that will come out.

    If they do get a conviction this would be a great and very public way to show how serious they are about eliminating distracted driving and getting the word out to self-driving car owners that they shouldn’t mess around with other people’s as well as their own lives.

    * My understanding was that it wasn’t as dark out as the footage showed and it would still be possible to see the surroundings clearly.

  • avatar

    Wasn’t the victim jay walking at the time? IIRC in Germany you never see someone jaywalking. It’s also the law that if you hit a jaywalker you can sue them or their estate for the damage to your car. We should have the same law.

    Confirmed: “The self-driving Uber SUV involved in a crash that killed a Tempe, Ariz., woman last year did not recognize her as a jaywalking pedestrian”

    Why is this even a question?

    • 0 avatar

      The official version is in Germany is:

      § 25 StVO – Fußgänger

      “(3) Fußgänger haben Fahrbahnen unter Beachtung des Fahrzeugverkehrs zügig auf dem kürzesten Weg quer zur Fahrtrichtung zu überschreiten, und zwar, wenn die Verkehrslage es erfordert, nur an Kreuzungen oder Einmündungen, an Lichtzeichenanlagen innerhalb von Markierungen oder auf Fußgängerüberwegen (Zeichen 293). Wird die Fahrbahn an Kreuzungen oder Einmündungen überschritten, so sind dort angebrachte Fußgängerüberwege oder Markierungen an Lichtzeichenanlagen stets zu benutzen.”

      which roughly translates to:

      Traffic Code §25 – Pedestrians

      “(3) Pedestrians must cross roadways always in a speedy manner, using the shortest way orthogonally to the driving direction. If the traffic situation requires it, the crossing must be restricted to intersections, T-Junctions, marked crossings at traffic lights or zebra crossings. When crossing at an Intersection or T-Junction, the street markings and traffic lights must be obeyed.”

      Which is both a bit confusing, and rather vague. The interpretation that is usually agreed upon is that it’s fine to cross where ever you want, unless you’re close to an official crossing or traffic light, or crossing the street would cause a dangerous situation.

      To sum things up: There is no regulation explicitly prohibiting jaywalking, but there is a 5€ fine for crossing a red light as a pedestrian. There is no “acceptable distance of a traffic light” known to me which would require you by law to use it instead of just crossing the road. You may never cross a road if you have to step over/under any chains or other objects blocking access to the road. Those are there for a reason.

      FYI, I moved to Germany this summer and had to learn this in order to be able drive here legally.

      I cannot find an reference online here about a driver having the right to sue a jaywalker after hitting them.

      That being said, the known facts are that the software failed to recognized the deceased until it was far too late. Uber is not without civil or criminal liability, in my opinion.

      • 0 avatar

        Why? The vehicle wasn’t breaking the law the victim was.

        • 0 avatar

          Uber disabled Volvo’s suite of safety features for their own. Clearly, their tech failed spectacularly. The driver and Uber both contributed to the specific condition that lead to a pedestrian being run over, whether through poor design (Uber) or negligent indifference and/or incompetence (the driver/attendent). Blame is not a binary choice in this case.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    Nobody to root for in this story. We have

    1) an giant corporation that wants to push human-driven vehicles off the road, ending my way of life in order to expand their customer base
    2) a “safety operator” who is basically ballast, distracted by reality TV
    3) a dumb jaywalker crossing the road in the dark and assumed the oncoming car would stop for her

    Agree with Detroit-X. Hope I get an extra ten years of driving freedom out of this. And we’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’til Big Brother takes the T-bird away.

  • avatar

    The driver was certainly negligent in their job duties but it is rather ironic that they appear to be getting charged mainly due to a) camera footage from inside/outside the car, b) extreme scrutiny from a high profile case.

    If she had just been driving distracted in a normal car and hit a jaywalker, she could’ve just claimed “she came out of nowhere” and I think it’s likely she’d be taken at her word. Instead, all of the car’s monitoring features were actually used against her.

    Again, the driver was negligent but in some ways I feel that they were set up to fail. The human brain is inevitably going to check out or fall asleep if it’s not asked to do anything for hours at a time.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    UBER is an outlaw organization.

    It’s founder, Travis Kalanick oozes sleeze, and that sleeze is part of the firm’s DNA.

    It was birthed with the overt intention to circumvent existing urban regulatory regimes in cities worldwide.

    It calls itself an “app” while everybody knows it is a taxi company.

    From there, it exploited labor laws to reduce its expenses.

    It continues to exploit its public owners by pretending its flawed business model might one day mysteriously generate profit.

    It hired low-quality, under-trained personnel to “drive” its “autonomous” 4000lb murder weapons among innocent bystanders.

    Behind me Uber, be gone! For those silly enough to invest in this outlaw organization, good riddance! You deserve the haircut you will rightly receive!

  • avatar

    This is why I have zero appetite for all the nannies in my car. Make mine fully autonomous please, I’ll sit in the back and read a book. Until then, I’ll do the driving, watch my mirrors, and generally not hit things. If I had all that the ‘autopilot’ stuff to rely on, I’m afraid I might tune out eventually.

    I like: automatic headlights — but I get in trouble when my ‘other’ car doesn’t have them; backup cameras in large cars — but I still turn my head to see what ELSE is going on; cruise control — always; adaptive cruise — never had it, would probably like it.

    All the other stuff, automatic braking, wiggling my steering wheel because the car ‘thinks’ i’m wandering etc. is just a pain. As is the beeping when I get close to an obstacle, or when I fail to put on my seat belt at walking speed.

  • avatar

    Not mentioned here but brought up shortly after the incident, and repeated in mainstream reporting today, Uber had disabled Volvo’s safety nannies, and was relying on its own obviously hokum hardware/software. The Volvo had standard pedestrian detection, but it was disabled. Exit one pedestrian, jaywalker or not, it doesn’t matter.

    Add to that hours of tedious behind the wheel “monitoring” for Rafael when the software sort of performed properly as it repeatedly wandered around a set course, leading to the same sort of relaxation that seems to have offed more than one Tesla driver, and it all went horribly wrong. Was Rafael really seriously “trained”? You gotta ask, why were these half-arsed autonomous crapmobiles allowed to prowl public roads in the first place? Who oversold who on the merits of that approach? There’s your guilty party.

    All these autonomy wackos should be forced to build a test facility together, and then let’s have the two dozen or more different systems run around continuously on a fake cityscape and try to not hit each other, without V2V systems, to see whose autonomous system actually sort of kind of works. Stick in a few feeding spots and some trees and blindspots and faded white and yellow lines and random broken traffic lights, then add a herd of deer looking for those elusive buckets of apples cunningly placed somewhere different each day. That’ll sort the halfway decent autonomy systems out from one another.

    Judging by the AAA and other reports I’ve read on the crappiness of autonomous systems and nannies and the behavior of the nannies of my own car, it kind of seems to me that prosecuting a minimum wage worker is just the easy way out for officialdom to wipe its hands clean of the whole affair by offloading blame.

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