TEMPE, Ariz. - The backup Uber driver for a self-driving vehicle that killed a pedestrian in suburban Phoenix in 2018 pleaded guilty Friday to endangerment in the first fatal collision involving a fully autonomous car.
The crash happened in Tempe back in March 2018. Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed as she walked a bicycle outside the lines of a crosswalk.
Court records show Vasquez told investigators the victim came out of nowhere, and she didn't see Herzberg before the crash.
The backup driver, identified as 49-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, had been charged with negligent homicide but reached a plea agreement with prosecutors. The judge who accepted the plea sentenced Vasquez, 49, to three years of supervised probation.
Prosecutors say Vasquez was streaming a TV show on her phone, and video shows her looking down just before the collision.
Vasquez’s attorneys said their client was looking at a messaging activity used by Uber employees on a work cellphone that sat on her right knee. "The Voice" was playing on Vasquez’s personal cellphone, which was sitting on the passenger seat, they said.
Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against Uber in Herzberg’s death after the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the main cause of the crash was Vasquez’s failure to monitor the road.
The crash in Arizona wasn’t the first involving an Uber autonomous test vehicle. In March 2017, an Uber SUV flipped onto its side, also in Tempe. No serious injuries were reported, and the driver of the other car was cited for a violation. Herzberg’s trial will be held in Phoenix.
Herzberg’s death was the first involving an autonomous test vehicle but not the first in a car with some self-driving features. The driver of a Tesla Model S was killed in 2016 when his car, operating on its autopilot system, crashed into a tractor-trailer in Florida.
In Herzberg’s death, the contributing factors cited by the NTSB board included 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.
The board 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.
The backup driver was there to take over the vehicle if systems failed.
The death reverberated throughout the auto industry and Silicon Valley and forced other companies to slow what had been a fast march toward autonomous ride-hailing services. Uber pulled its self-driving cars out of Arizona, and then-Gov. Doug Ducey prohibited the company from continuing its tests of self-driving cars.
Vasquez had previously spent more than four years in prison for two felony convictions — making false statements when obtaining unemployment benefits and attempted armed robbery — before starting work as an Uber driver, according to court records.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.