Uber is “likely” not to be blamed for an accident involving one of its self-driving cars that led to the death of a woman in Arizona, Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir told The San Francisco Chronicle.
“I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident,” Moir said. The incident is believed to be the first known fatality involving a self-driving car on a public road. “The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Moir said of the accident. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”
While Moir refers to the driver as a male, it was later revealed that the operator is actually a female, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez. Vasquez has since come under scrutiny following a report from Arizona Central that revealed she is a convicted felon.
In the early 2000s, Vasquez served almost four years in an Arizona prison for an attempted armed robbery conviction. Moir said police “won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the [backup driver] in the Uber vehicle.”
That said, police are saying that the accident may have been the fault of the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who appeared to be homeless. Using footage obtained from two video cameras outfitted to the self-driving Uber Volvo SUV — one facing forward toward the street, the other focused on the driver — police say that it appears that car didn’t have enough time to stop before hitting Herzberg.
According to police, the Uber vehicle was driving at 38 miles-per-hour (approximately 61 kilometres-per-hour) in a 35 mph zone (roughly 56 kph) on the night of Sunday, March 18th.
Moir said the car made no attempt to brake, adding “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”
Moir said Herzberg was “perhaps within 100 yards” of a crosswalk, noting “it is dangerous to cross roadways in the evening hour when well-illuminated, managed crosswalks are available.”
While the incident raises safety concerns associated with self-driving cars, Moir said she’s only aware of one other accident, which occurred a year ago. In that incident, authorities determined the other car involved failed to yield and cited its driver for a moving violation. Moir said it’s difficult to determine to fault in self-driving car accidents because “this is really new ground we’re venturing into.”
Uber has confirmed it will temporarily halt its self-driving car tests in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Toronto as the investigation continues.