On March 18, 2018 at around 10pm, one of Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUVs was involved in a deadly crash in Tempe, Arizona, killing 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was walking her bicycle across the road.
The car wasn’t entirely unsupervised — a human “safety driver” was behind the wheel during the fatal crash. The grisly incident became a major turning point in the development of self-driving cars, with Uber shutting down its entire operations in Arizona following the crash for the next nine months.
The accident also raised some important questions: who was to blame for the crash, Uber or the driver?
This week, more than two years after the crash, local authorities have charge the safety driver, 46-year-old Uber employee Rafaela Vasquez, with one count of negligent homicide, CNET reports.
Negligent homicide is a Class 4 felony, Arizona Central reports, which could land Vasquez in prison for four to eight years if convicted.
In November, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled that Vasquez failed to pay sufficient attention to the road, as she was reportedly busy looking at her cell phone. But board said that she wasn’t the only one to blame — Uber’s “inadequate safety culture” was also partially at fault.
Dashcam footage of the interior of the self-driving car showed Vasquez spending about a third of the trip looking down at the SUV’s center console, where she had placed her cellphone, as NPR reports.
“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” County Attorney Allister Adel said in a Tuesday statement by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO). “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.”
Vasquez’s employer, meanwhile, appears to have gotten away scot free. According to a March 2019 MCAO statement, prosecutors found “no basis for criminal liability” for Uber, setting a precedent for future litigation involving autonomous vehicles.
Uber’s software seemingly wouldn’t have been ready to avoid the crash. According to hundreds of pages of documents released by the NTSB in November 2019, Uber’s software at the time didn’t even know people could exist outside of crosswalks, let alone what it should if it encountered a jaywalker.
The NTSB report also found that “had the vehicle operator been attentive, she would likely have had sufficient time to detect and react to the crossing pedestrian to avoid the crash or mitigate the impact.”
Since the crash, Uber has started to mandate that each car will require two safety drivers, with an imposed driving time limit of four hours. The company also published a voluntary safety self-assessment in 2018, as CNET reports.
On Tuesday, during her arraignment in court, Vasquez pled not guilty. According to the Associated Press, her trial is set for February 21.
Uber has yet to comment on the charges.
READ MORE: Uber’s self-driving car ‘safety driver’ charged in fatal 2018 crash [CNET]
More on the crash: Self-Driving Uber That Killed Woman Didn’t Know Jaywalkers Existed