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Uber self-driving car test driver pleads guilty to endangerment in pedestrian death case


By Rebekah Riess and Zoe Sottile, CNN

(CNN) — The Uber test driver behind the wheel of one of the company’s self-driving cars, when it hit and killed a pedestrian in 2018, pleaded guilty to endangerment and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation Friday, according to officials.

Rafaela Vasquez was watching television on her smartphone in March 2018 when the Uber self-driving vehicle fatally struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, who was crossing a road in Tempe, Arizona, according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation. Herzberg’s death was the first known fatality involving a fully autonomous vehicle.

A judge in the Superior Court of Maricopa sentenced Rafaela Vasquez to three years of supervised probation and determined that the charge would only be designated a misdemeanor “upon successful completion of her sentence,” according to a news release.

The Uber-employed safety driver behind the wheel of the car was meant to monitor the car’s performance and intervene if the autonomous driving software failed, as previously reported by CNN.

But the National Transportation Safety Board’s 2019 investigation found that Vasquez was looking away from the road for over a third of the trip. The board concluded that the crash was “avoidable” if the safety driver had been alert and also found that an inadequate safety culture at Uber contributed to the crash. The company’s self-driving software wasn’t designed to expect that pedestrians outside crosswalks may be crossing the street, according to the investigation.

“The defendant in this matter was responsible for the operation of a vehicle on our city streets that ended with a woman being killed,” Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said in the court’s news release. “Determining an appropriate plea in this case involved considering a multitude of factors. We believe the Judge ordered an appropriate sentence based on the mitigating and aggravating factors.”

“Getting behind the wheel of a car is a serious responsibility. Regardless of whatever technology might be available to drivers, safety for everyone on the street and in the vehicle must always be a driver’s first priority,” Mitchell went on.

The plea agreement also stipulates that Vasquez pay restitution “to all victims,” including insurance companies involved.

Vasquez was initially charged with negligent homicide in 2020. She pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Uber reached a settlement with the victim’s family less than two weeks after her death. The company did not face criminal charges. In December, the ride-share giant said it plans to launch a fully driverless service in collaboration with Motional in 2023.

CNN has reached out to Vasquez’s attorney, Albert Jaynes Morrison, for comment.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Matt McFarland contributed to this report.

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