Who is criminally liable when a self-driving car fatally strikes a pedestrian? Not the company that built and tested the car — at least not when it comes to Uber’s fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona last March, which killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.
Uber won’t be charged with a crime, according to a letter, first reported on by Quartz, from Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, the prosecutor who was temporarily in charge of the case. “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 the document.
Originally, the case was being prosecuted by Arizona’s Maricopa County, but that department was forced to temporarily hand it off to Yavapai County due to a potential conflict of interest. (Apparently, Uber helped sponsor the county’s don’t-drink-and-drive campaign.) But now that local prosecutors have determined that Uber isn’t at fault, the case is being handed back to Maricopa County. That’s the main purpose of the letter.
Now, it’ll be up to Maricopa to determine whether Uber’s backup safety driver, Rafaela Vasquez, should be charged with a crime instead. According to Tempe police, she was watching The Voice on Hulu during most of her entire shift, right up until the time of the accident.
But Yavapai County suggests they’ll need more evidence before charging her with a crime, either — specifically pointing out that the widely shared video of the fatal crash “likely does not accurately depict the events that occurred.” They’re suggesting police find an expert to point out what an actual person would have been likely to see from the driver’s seat, as opposed to the car’s cameras and sensors.
According to Reuters, the NTSB and NHTSA are still investigating the case. They might still decide that Uber is at fault. A preliminary NTSB report in May did mention that Uber had disabled one of the car’s emergency braking features, but also that the self-driving system seemed to be operating normally. That report didn’t assign any blame.
Uber halted its self-driving tests entirely after the fatal incident, but they started up again in Pittsburgh, in an extremely limited way, this past December. The company also reached an undisclosed settlement with Herzberg’s family back in March, but the family is also suing the city of Tempe for $10 million, claiming that a brick pathway encouraged her to cross the road at the site of the crash, even though it wasn’t properly designed or marked as a crosswalk.