Driver in fatal Uber autonomous crash set for June trial

Posted at 3:24 PM, April 25, 2023 and last updated 3:51 PM, May 2, 2023

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona Uber driver involved in the first death connected to a fully autonomous vehicle will be tried in June on a negligent homicide charge.

Rafaela Vasquez, 49, previously had been scheduled for trial next month in the March 2018 crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she walked a bicycle outside the lines of a crosswalk in Tempe, Arizona. Vasquez’s trial was rescheduled during a brief hearing Tuesday.

Still from video of inside an Uber just before it fatally struck a woman.

FILE- This March 18, 2018, file photo from video from a mounted camera provided by the Tempe Police Department shows an interior view moments before an Uber SUV fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Ariz., in what was the first death involving a fully autonomous vehicle. Rafaela Vasquez, the backup Uber driver in the vehicle in question, has pleaded not guilty to a negligent homicide charge in the 2018 crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. Vasquez’s trial is scheduled to begin on June 26, 2023. (Tempe Police Department via AP, File)

Vasquez, who has pleaded not guilty to the charge, told police Herzberg “came out of nowhere” and that she didn’t see her prior to the collision.

Authorities say Vasquez was streaming the television show “The Voice” on a phone and looking downward in the moments before Uber’s Volvo XC-90 SUV collided with Herzberg. But Vasquez’s attorneys said their client was looking at a messaging activity used by Uber employees on a work cellphone that sat on her right knee. “The Voice” was playing on Vasquez’s personal cellphone, which was sitting on the passenger seat, they said.

Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against Uber in Herzberg’s death after the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the main cause of the crash was Vasquez’s failure to monitor the road.

The crash in Arizona wasn’t the first involving an Uber autonomous test vehicle. In March 2017, an Uber SUV flipped onto its side, also in Tempe. No serious injuries were reported, and the driver of the other car was cited for a violation. Herzberg’s trial will be held in Phoenix.

Herzberg’s death was the first involving an autonomous test vehicle but not the first in a car with some self-driving features. The driver of a Tesla Model S was killed in 2016 when his car, operating on its autopilot system, crashed into a tractor-trailer in Florida.