May 27, 2024

Uber Lawsuit Resolves Ethics Question of Self-Driving Cars Killing Pedestrians

  • A woman behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber that hit a pedestrian has been in legal limbo ever since.
  • The operator faced negligent homicide charges after a 2018 crash killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg.
  • Rafaela Vasquez on Friday pleaded guilty to endangerment in the case, avoiding prison time.

A guilty plea entered Friday offered an answer to the once-hypothetical ethics question of who is responsible when a self-driving car kills a pedestrian. 

Rafaela Vasquez, who was behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber SUV that struck and killed a pedestrian in March of 2018, pleaded guilty to endangerment related to the case, avoiding prison time.

She was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, according to a plea agreement released by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office

Investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona.

Investigators examine a driverless Uber SUV that fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona.


National Transportation Safety Board via AP



Vasquez had been charged with negligent homicide after investigators said she had been watching a video on her phone at the time of the crash and didn’t brake in time, Insider previously reported. 

The Uber system detected the victim 5.6 seconds before the crash, The New York Times reported but failed to determine that she was a bicyclist or that she was headed into the vehicle’s path.

The victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was the first known pedestrian fatality related to a fully autonomous vehicle crash. She had been pushing her bike through a crosswalk before the impact occurred.

Interior view of Rafaela's vehicle moments before the self-driving Uber SUV she was operating fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona, in what was the first death involving a fully autonomous vehicle.

Interior view of Rafaela’s vehicle moments before the self-driving Uber SUV she was operating fatally struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona, in what was the first death involving a fully autonomous vehicle.


Tempe Police Department via AP,



Two years prior, Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio, was operating a semi-autonomous Tesla when he was killed in a crash in what was the first death attributed to self-driving technology, The New York Times reported.

Since then, according to Department of Transportation statistics from January, carmakers have reported a total of 419 vehicle crashes involving semi- or fully-autonomous vehicles, including 18 fatalities.

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