Operator of self-driving Uber that struck, killed Tempe woman pleads not guilty to negligent homicide

On Aug. 27, 2020, a grand jury indicted the operator of a self-driving Uber of negligent homicide after fatally colliding with a woman crossing the street in 2018 in Tempe.

Rafael Vasquez, 46, is facing the indictment after the March 18, 2018 incident, and in her Sept. 15 arraignment, she pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide.

400-page report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the self-driving vehicle did not recognize 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg until about a second before the impact. Seconds before that, it identified her as an "unknown object" and decided she wasn't in the car's path.

The NTSB noted that the driver of the Uber was moving for 31 minutes prior to the crash, spending 34 percent of that time on the phone, which goes against Uber policy.

The victim's family reached a private settlement with Uber two weeks after the accident.

Prosecutors declined in March 2019 to file criminal charges against Uber, as a corporation, in Herzberg’s death.

Vasquez told investigators that she didn’t use her cell phones before the crash. It was not immediately known if Vasquez has an attorney who could comment on her behalf.

The contributing factors cited by the board included Uber’s inadequate safety procedures and ineffective oversight of its drivers, Herzberg’s decision to cross the street outside of a crosswalk, and the Arizona Department of Transportation’s insufficient oversight of autonomous vehicle testing.

The board also concluded Uber’s de-activation of its automatic emergency braking system increased the risks associated with testing automated vehicles on public roads. Instead of the system, Uber relied on the human backup driver to intervene.

The Uber system detected Herzberg 5.6 seconds before the crash. But it but failed to determine whether she was a bicyclist, pedestrian or unknown object, or that she was headed into the vehicle’s path, the board said.

The death reverberated throughout the auto industry and Silicon Valley and forced other companies to slow what had been a fast march toward autonomous ride-hailing services on public roads.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars out of Arizona the day before the NTSB issued a preliminary report on the crash, eliminating the jobs of about 300 people who served as backup drivers and performed other jobs connected to the vehicles.

Gov. Doug Ducey prohibited Uber from continuing its tests of self-driving cars after Herzberg was run over.

A toxicology report showed that Herzberg tested positive for methamphetamine.

Vasquez had previously spent more than four years in prison for two felony convictions — making false statements when obtaining unemployment benefits and attempted armed robbery — before starting work as an Uber driver, according to court records.

Vasquez’s first name was listed on a driver’s license as Rafael, but police say Vasquez identifies as a woman and goes by the first name of Rafaela.

The decision not to criminally charge Uber in Herzberg’s death was made by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, whose officer handled the case after the prosecutor’s office in metro Phoenix cited a potential conflict of interest for having previously participated in a public-safety campaign with Uber.

The case was returned to prosecutors in metro Phoenix after the decision not to charge Uber had eliminated the conflict of interest.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.