- Prosecutors in Yavapai County, AZ said in a letter that Uber is not criminally liable for the death of a pedestrian who was struck by one of its autonomous vehicles (AVs) in Tempe, AZ last year.
- County Attorney Sheila Sullivan Polk said video of the collision that killed Elaine Herzberg "likely does not accurately depict the events that occurred," and while she said there is “no basis” for Uber to be held liable, Tempe police should collect more evidence related to backup driver Rafaela Vasquez.
- Polk also recommended an expert analysis of the collision video, which she said would “closely match what (and when) the person sitting in the driver’s seat of the vehicle would or should have seen that night given the vehicle’s speed, lighting conditions and other relevant factors.”
The fatal crash last year put many cities and companies on edge about AV testing, with several pausing all tests on public streets, yet continuing to test in private, enclosed research facilities. There had been worries Uber would likely be held more legally accountable, especially after news broke that a manager had warned of potential safety issues just days before the crash. But this letter from the county attorney — who accepted the case due to a conflict from a prior working relationship between Uber and the Maricopa County, AZ Attorney’s Office — should ease the company’s fears, although if similar incidents happen, it will continue to call into question the potential liability of companies that test AVs.
It is significant that prosecutors in Yavapai County recommended an expert analysis of the on-board video. An initial investigation found the AV’s software might have been at fault in the crash, particularly its "higher logic," meaning how the car makes decisions about which objects warrant attention and how to react. The decision also calls into question the actions — or lack thereof — of Vasquez, who as the safety driver should have been paying closer attention but was found to be streaming video on her phone. Police have previously described the crash as “entirely avoidable.”
The legal battles will continue in this case, with the city of Tempe subject to a $10 million lawsuit from Herzberg’s family, who assert poor street design created an unsafe situation at the intersection where the accident occurred. The suit claims the city created a “hazardous condition” by having a paved pathway on a median without crosswalks or lights to accommodate pedestrians.
The incident has demonstrated the legal issues that AV operators could face if they are involved in future crashes, and also has shed light on the need for cities to update street designs and infrastructure if they are to bring pedestrian fatalities down from a 30-year high.