Enlarge /. The Uber vehicle after that met Elaine Herzberg.
An Arizona grand jury has indicted Rafaela Vasquez, a former safety driver on Uber's self-driving car project, of the 2018 death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. Prosecutors decided last year not to prosecute Uber.
The crash occurred after dark on a well-lit section of Mill Avenue. Herzberg was crossing the multi-lane road on her bike when the Uber SUV hit her at 38 mph. Footage from a camera facing the driver shows Vasquez looking at her lap for more than five seconds just before the accident. Officials discovered that Vasquez streamed a reality show called The Voice on her cell phone shortly before the crash.
Vasquez is charged with negligent murder, a charge similar to manslaughter, which carries a recommended prison term of 2.5 years. However, the grand jury also accused the crime of a "dangerous instrument" – the car. If negligent murder is committed with a dangerous weapon or instrument, the recommended sentence increases to six years.
"Distracted driving is an issue of great concern in our community," a Maricopa County attorney said in a press release. "When a driver gets behind the wheel of a car, he is responsible for driving and operating this vehicle safely and in accordance with the law."
The grand jury formally approved the charges in August and Vasquez was charged on Tuesday. She was released pending trial with an ankle monitor.
"We shouldn't hit things every 15,000 miles."
In the months leading up to the Herzberg crash, senior Uber executives were warned of problems with the self-driving technology. Indeed, days before Herzberg's death, an outgoing Uber engineer sent a damning email to the head of the self-drive program.
"A car was damaged almost every other day in February," Miller wrote. "We shouldn't hit things every 15,000 miles."
Miller pointed to an incident last week (nine days before Herzberg's death) when an Uber test vehicle "drove several feet on the sidewalk".
"With Waymo, I wouldn't have been surprised if the entire fleet were instantly grounded for weeks or more if a vehicle had behaved the same," Miller wrote. Instead, he reported, the incident was "essentially ignored" until Miller brought it to the attention of management.
But Uber escaped criminal liability for the crash.
"After a very thorough examination of all evidence presented, this bureau determined that there was no basis for the criminal liability of the Uber company," wrote a prosecutor.
Uber reached a quick deal with Herzberg's heirs. But the crash rocked Uber's young self-driving technology program. Uber suspended the program for months and finally ended testing in Arizona. Nine months after the crash, Uber resumed testing in Pittsburgh on a much smaller scale.