On March 18, 2018, the first fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber was captured on video. The death of Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona will undoubtedly generate questions and criticisms directed toward the application of this emerging technology and the state regulations that have encouraged its implementation.
Elaine Herzberg was walking her bike across a relatively darkened and empty street around 10 p.m. when she was struck by the autonomous Uber. The police have released two videos of the incident, one of which shows the collision itself. The video inside the Uber is 14 seconds long and shows the operator, Rafaela Vasquez, intermittently taking her eyes off of the road in the moments leading up to the collision.
Although the operators are referred to as “safety drivers” and are expected to take control of the vehicle if necessary, the vehicles are equipped with radar sensors meant to detect the presence of people and other objects in their path. In fact, manufacturers of this technology claim that self-driving vehicles are safer than human drivers. If that were the case, it begs the question why a safety driver is needed at all. Many argue that the industry has found itself in a dangerous gray area; one in which the vehicles are not entirely autonomous, but just autonomous enough to give operators a sense of security, making it that much easier for them to disengage from the road.
“It’s just awful…there should be a criminal case,” says Tina Marie Herzberg White, the stepdaughter of the victim. Whether or not criminal charges will actually result from this incident is a decision to be made by local prosecutors. While the local police chief has already suggested that Uber is not at fault, many others argue that Uber should be criminally liable if it is determined that their autonomous vehicle negligently killed someone. It is not yet known whether or not Herzberg’s family will pursue a civil case. Regardless, “Ain’t no amount of money in the world is going to bring her back,” says White.
While Uber has not yet released a specific statement in regards to the cause of the accident, they did make the following statement: “The video is disturbing and heartbreaking to watch, and our thoughts continue to be with Elaine’s loved ones. Our cars remain grounded, and we’re assisting local, state and federal authorities in any way we can.” For the time being, all self-driving Uber vehicles have been suspended from operation.