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A 2018 fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber car and a pedestrian caused the ride-sharing company to quickly pump the brakes on its quest for driverless vehicles. It also certainly did not help ease the public's concerns about the new technology.
Now the "safety driver" behind the wheel of that self-driving Uber is facing charges of negligent homicide, prosecutors in Tempe, Arizona, announced this week. The charges are likely to spook both autonomous vehicle companies and potential employees.
In 2018, Rafaela Vazquez was behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber in Tempe when it struck Elaine Herzberg, who was walking her bicycle across a street at night. Herzberg was not in a crosswalk at the time.
Investigators found that Vazquez was streaming TV on her phone and was repeatedly looking down at her phone at the time of the crash. The car was going 40 m.p.h., and Vazquez hit the brake too late to prevent the accident.
Since that crash, Uber quickly settled with the victim's family. Prosecutors also cleared the company of criminal liability.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation, however, found that the vehicle's software failed to identify Herzberg as a pedestrian. It also accused Uber of failing to address the "automation complacency" of its back-up drivers and did not do a good enough job monitoring them.
But Vazquez will face the criminal justice system alone. There is no word on whether Uber will provide funds for her defense.
The progress of self-driving cars has been slow. And while the 2018 accident put a temporary halt to Uber's self-driving program, their vehicles are back on the road in several cities:
Waymo, a self-driving car company owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, operates driverless vehicles in the Phoenix metro area. Unlike Uber, these cars do not have back-up safety drivers.
Many human drivers on the road are still understandably nervous about the semi-new technology. But right now, there is a lack of federal regulations and a patchwork of state laws governing the deployment of the technology.
With a back-up driver facing criminal charges, companies could have a harder time finding people to sit behind the wheel of their self-driving automobiles, especially if it looks like they'll be on their own if something goes wrong.