Driver of autonomous car faces homicide charge after cyclist killed

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Words: Matthew Hansen
17 Sep 2020

In a case that could become a landmark for tech and motoring’s future, an autonomous Uber ‘safety driver’ has been charged with negligent homicide.

In March 2018, Rafael Vasquez was behind the wheel of a self-driving Volvo XC90 fitted with Uber sensors and autonomous technology. With Vasquez’ eyes off the wheel, the Uber vehicle failed to spot a cyclist crossing the road in front of it — Elaine Herzberg — hitting them at speed. Herzberg later died in hospital.

America’s National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) has since credited some blame on Herzberg, but not without also blaming both Vasquez and Uber. The former was noted to have been “visually distracted”, with reports claiming she was watching a video on her phone 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 and in a law-abiding manner.”

The NTSB also levelled some blame on Uber; it’s report claimed the organisation had “inadequate safety risk assessment procedures” and “ineffective oversight of vehicle operators”. But unlike Vasquez, Uber will face no criminal charges. It has been deemed to have “no basis for criminal liability” in the case, according to the NTSB.

The case is a first for self-driving cars, as the tech edges closer and closer to becoming a production vehicle and ride-share vehicle reality. According to reports, the vehicle’s sensors detected an object on the road six seconds before impact — but it only decided to intervene 1.3 seconds before impact.

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