‘I’m the Operator’: The Aftermath of a Self-Driving Tragedy (2024)

Uber employees helped the cops find the right footage, which would go on to play a key role in the investigation: video of Vasquez in the driver’s seat as the car navigated the route; then of Vasquez gazing down toward her right knee, toward the lower console. Her glances downward averaged 2.56 seconds, but on one early loop, on the same stretch of road where the crash would take place, she looked down for more than 26 seconds. At times, the investigators thought she seemed to smirk. In the seconds before the car hit Herzberg, Vasquez looked down for about five seconds. Just before impact, she looked up, and gasped.

The media descended on the story the next day. Right away, experts were quoted lambasting Arizona’s lax regulatory environment, calling for a national moratorium on testing, and saying that fatalities are inevitable when developing such a technology.

Initially, Vasquez says, she was reassured by the police’s public stance. Tempe’s then police chief, Sylvia Moir, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.” Uber, she said, “would likely not be at fault,” though she wouldn’t rule out charges for the human pilot.

After that interview, Moir told me, emails that pulsed with “excruciating rage” deluged her inbox, accusing Moir of complicity in Tempe’s self-driving experiments and of blaming Herzberg for her own death. People were angry and wanted accountability. As the hours ticked by, reporters started digging up as many details as they could about Vasquez—including information about an 18-year-old felony for which she had served just under four years in prison.

By the end of the day, a search warrant had been issued for any cell phone Vasquez had with her in the Volvo “to determine if Rafaela was distracted.” Maybe that would show what she was so interested in down by her knee. The warrant also listed the crime now under investigation: vehicular manslaughter.

Two nights after the crash, a trio of police gathered outside room 227 at a Motel 6 in Tucson. Vasquez had checked in because, she says, reporters were thronging her apartment. The first days had set her reeling. “I knew everything happened; I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I was in shock.” Now as she greeted the cops, she seemed calm but slightly on edge; her attorney didn’t want her answering any questions, she told them. They were there to bag her phones into evidence. She initially told the officers that she’d only had her work phone with her in the car during the crash, but eventually handed over two LG phones—the one she used for work, with a black case, she explained to them, and her personal one, in a metallic case.

The next morning, the data that police extracted showed no calls made or texts sent in the minutes before the accident. Then, according to police reports, the cops homed in on the apps. Were videos playing at the time of the crash? Search warrants went to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

The Tempe police were also weighing whether to make public the Volvo’s dashcam footage of the moments leading up to the crash. The Maricopa County attorney, Bill Montgomery, told them that releasing the video, which was in police custody at that point, could jeopardize their suspect’s right to fair legal proceedings. But Moir says the police were under “considerable” pressure from the public to do so, and they wanted to show there was nothing to hide; so the police tweeted the footage. Suddenly the world could see both Vasquez and Herzberg in the seconds before impact. Joe Guy, one operator in Tempe, gathered with others who’d come into Ghost Town, and they watched the video of Vasquez. “Most of us,” he says, “we went, ‘What the f*ck was she looking at?’”

As the investigation ramped up, half a dozen Advanced Technologies Group personnel from other offices arrived in Tempe. At the police garage, cops stood by while the company downloaded the impounded car’s data so it could analyze what the system had done that night.

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‘I’m the Operator’: The Aftermath of a Self-Driving Tragedy (2024)


Who was the Uber self-driving fatality? ›

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.

Who killed Elaine Herzberg? ›

After five years of purgatory, Rafaela Vasquez, the operator of a self-driving Uber that killed a pedestrian in 2018, pleaded guilty to endangerment. It's been more than five years since an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman named Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bicycle across a road in Tempe, Arizona.

Who is responsible for an accident caused by a driverless car? ›

However, if the car was on autopilot and essentially “driverless” at the time of a crash, the driver may not have been negligent. Instead, the cause of the crash may have been a defect in the vehicle. It follows that liability would fall on the manufacturer of the vehicle.

Who was the first driverless car death? ›

Elaine Herzberg

How many Uber murders have happened? ›

Additionally, Uber says nine people were murdered during Uber rides and 58 people died in auto-related crashes. The numbers represent the first set of publicly available data regarding the safety of Uber's ride-hailing platform and how it compares to national US averages.

How many Uber deaths have there been? ›

The study concluded that 107 fatalities were caused by 97 Uber vehicles. A safety assessment was released later by the California-based firm for 2019 and 2020. The data showed that more than one hundred people died every year. A total of 101 deaths occurred in 91 fatal incidents.

Have driverless cars killed anyone? ›

Automated Vehicle Accident Statistics and Facts

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), self-driving cars resulted in at least 11 deaths in a four month period in 2022 across the US. Approximately 9.1 driverless car crashes occur per million miles driven.

How many people has Waymo killed? ›

City officials have criticized the driverless cars for at times getting confused and blocking emergency vehicles, while the companies have emphasized their safety record: No one has died as a result of using the Cruise and Waymo cars, while deaths involving human drivers are on the rise locally and nationally.

Has a Waymo ever crashed? ›

Two Waymo vehicles crashed a few minutes apart into the pickup truck while it was being towed across a center turn lane and a traffic lane, the company said. Waymo said its vehicles incorrectly predicted how the pickup truck and the tow truck would move.

How many times have self-driving cars crashed? ›

Why Do Self-Driving Cars Get into Accidents? Statistics show that self-driving cars are not completely safe. The NHTSA reported 392 crashes in a 10-month period involving cars with self-driving technology. Of these, there were six fatalities and five serious injuries.

Has a self-driving car ever crashed? ›

Automated Vehicle Accident Stats

273 of these accidents involved Teslas (the most common vehicle with self-driving capability), 70% of which used the Autopilot beta at the time. Out of the 98 self-driving crashes with injuries, 11 resulted in serious injuries. Five incidents involving Teslas were fatal.

How many self-driving cars have been in accidents? ›

How many self-driving car crashes happen in the United States? Since official reporting began in July 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has reported 508 crashes involving vehicles driving autonomously.

Has anyone been hit by a self-driving car? ›

On Sunday night, a self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, on North Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. It appears to be the first time an automobile driven by a computer has killed a human being by force of impact. The car was traveling at 38 miles per hour.

Who was the first person to be run over by a car? ›

Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon became the first motoring fatality on 17 August 1896, when she was run over by a Roger-Benz car at Crystal Palace, London. Employed by the Anglo-French Motor Co, Arthur Edsell was driving at 4mph/6.44kph when he hit Mrs Driscoll, fracturing her skull in the process.

What country invented self-driving cars? ›

In the 1980s, a vision-guided Mercedes-Benz robotic van, designed by Ernst Dickmanns and his team at the Bundeswehr University Munich in Munich, Germany, achieved a speed of 59.6 miles per hour (95.9 km/h) on streets without traffic.

Why wasn t Uber charged in a fatal self driving car crash? ›

Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against Uber in Herzberg's death after the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the main cause of the crash was Vasquez's failure to monitor the road.

Why did Uber abandon self driving cars? ›

But the programme hit setbacks after one of its cars was involved in a deadly crash in Arizona, though officials blamed human error for the accident and declined to bring criminal charges against the company. The driverless car unit was also tangled up in legal fights over allegations of technology theft.


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