Uber Will Not Face Criminal Charges After 2018 Self-Driving Death of Arizona Woman

The safety driver behind the wheel may still be charged if prosecutors deem her actions to be negligent.

Prosecutors announce that Uber will not face criminal charges after finding the company not liable for a fatal pedestrian accident which occurred last March in Tempe, Arizona when one of the company’s semi-autonomous test bed Volvos struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.

“After a very thorough review of all the evidence presented, this Office has determined that there is no basis for criminal liability for the Uber corporation arising from this matter,” reads a new document penned by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.

On March 18, 2018, a 2017 Volvo XC90 equipped with Uber’s semi-autonomous software driving suite was chauffeuring a ride when it collided with a jaywalking Herzberg. While the vehicle’s disabled on-board safety systems detected Herzberg crossing the road, Uber’s systems failed to recognize the pedestrian until it was too late.

While Uber is in the clear, the fate of the vehicle’s backup safety driver is still hazy. Prosecutors could still file charges against the safety driver should they deem her actions in the accident constitute negligence.

Uber places a “safety driver” in the front seat as a failsafe to its own software, effectively making its self-driving software semi-autonomous at best. Unfortunately, the safety driver also did not notice Herzberg until she had less than a second to react before impact. Police later subpoenaed records pertaining to the safety driver’s cell phone and discovered that she was streaming The View on Hulu for up to 42 minutes prior to the collision. In-car footage later showed that the driver was repeatedly looking at her lap and away from the road, presumably to watch the show on her phone.

Following the accident, Uber halted its semi-autonomous testing until December 2018, nine months after the accident occurred. Today, Uber tests with not only its safety driver but also a second individual in the front seat who monitors the safety driver. Redundancy in the form of a human watchdog.

In late March 2018, Uber settled with the Herzberg’s family for an undisclosed sum. The family filed another lawsuit last month against the city of Tempe, Arizona, alleging that the city created an unsafe environment when it paved a median, encouraging individuals to jaywalk where Herzberg was struck and killed. The second lawsuit seeks $10 million in punitive damages.

This regrettable death is another example of why “self-driving” is a term which too many individuals have a blind trust in despite the technology being in its infancy.