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Backup driver in self-driving Uber that killed woman pleads guilty

Rafaela Vasquez was sentenced to three years of supervised probation for the crash that killed a woman as she was crossing a road with her bike.
Rafaela Vasquez.
Posted at 11:37 AM, Jul 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-31 11:37:04-04

A woman behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber that hit and killed a pedestrian has pleaded guilty to endangerment in what is the first fatal collision involving a fully autonomous test vehicle.

After years of legal limbo, 49-year-old Rafaela Vasquez was sentenced to three years of supervised probation Friday for the 2018 crash that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in suburban Phoenix. Vasquez, who was behind the wheel of the car, told police that Herzberg "came out of nowhere" on the dimly lit Tempe street.

Vasquez had originally been charged with negligent homicide, a felony that carries a minimum one year prison sentence. However, she entered a plea agreement with prosecutors that would reclassify the charge as a misdemeanor if she completes the probationary requirements.

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Authorities said Vasquez was streaming a television show on her phone and not watching the road when her SUV struck Herzberg as she was crossing the street with her bicycle. But Vasquez's attorneys claim she was looking at an Uber messaging app that's used by employees while they work, and that the corporation should share some of the blame for the collision.

Herzberg's death was the first involving a fully autonomous test vehicle, but was not the first from a car with some self-driving features. Two years prior, an Ohio driver was killed after crashing into semi-truck while his Tesla was operating in autopilot mode.

In 2022, automakers reported nearly 400 crashes over a 10-month period involving semi-autonomous or fully-autonomous vehicles, according to U.S. regulators. A majority of those crashes involved Teslas.