The Washington Post reports that Tempe, Arizona’s police department is still investigating last year’s fatal accident in which an Uber autonomous test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian pushing a bike. The investigation comes at the request of Maricopa County’s prosecutors, who want to know more about whether the accident was avoidable.
Most recently, the Arizona Republic reported seeing Tempe Police officers at the accident scene driving on the section of road where the accident occurred last year. While not equipped with the sensors and radar Uber had on its vehicle, they were using an otherwise identical Volvo crossover. The section of road was closed during this testing.
Why They’re Still Investigating
Readers are probably wondering why this investigation is still ongoing, more than a year after the accident. The short answer is that they’re likely trying to decide whether to charge the driver with a crime.
In the days that followed the March 18, 2018, accident, Tempe Police released dashcam footage from the vehicle (warning: graphic footage may disturb some readers). The footage showed the great difficulty in seeing the victim enter the roadway. Based on this, they initially concluded that the accident was not avoidable because even a human driver would not have seen the victim in time to stop.
Further investigation revealed a much more complicated reality. The preliminary NTSB report indicates that Uber’s test vehicle did see the victim several seconds before the accident, and determined that an emergency stop was necessary, possibly in time to avoid or mitigate the effects of the collision. Unfortunately, Uber did not enable the system to stop by itself because this had previously caused erratic vehicle behavior. Instead, they were counting on the test driver to look for dangers and stop the vehicle to avoid collisions.
About three months after the accident, the Arizona Republic reported that police had investigated further, finding that the driver was distracted by reality TV at the time of the accident. Looking at internal vehicle footage, cellular phone records, and records from app providers, police determined that the test driver, Rafaela Vasquez, was watching The Voice instead of performing emergency braking duties as expected by Uber. For this reason, Tempe’s police department sought manslaughter charges.
At this point, Maricopa County prosecutors passed the case to another of Arizona county’s prosecutors due to a possible conflict of interest with Uber, because the Maricopa County prosecutor had previously worked with Uber on DWI prevention programs. This further delayed the case.
In March 2019 (almost a year after the fatal accident), Yavapai County prosecutors released a report indicating insufficient legal reason to charge Uber with any criminal wrongdoing. Because Uber itself was not going to be charged with a crime, this eliminated the possible conflict of interest, allowing the case to return to Maricopa County prosecutors with a recommendation to further investigate possible charges for the driver.
This latest road testing is likely part of expert analysis of the footage to see if there’s enough evidence to prove beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that the accident was avoidable. The case against the driver may seem like a slam dunk to readers, but proving all of this in a court, especially in light of the complicated nature of this case, is no easy task.
If prosecutors want to secure a conviction, they have to be extremely thorough. Should this case go to trial, the defense lawyer is going to have a lot of possible and plausible reasons that the jury should acquit his or her client.
Why This Matters
There is still a lot of speculation about how the law will treat autonomous vehicles. Will the occupants of a vehicle have liability in case of accidents, or will the manufacturer of the vehicle be to blame?
At this point, the case is probably not going to enlighten that discussion any further. Yes, the Uber test vehicle was testing autonomous vehicle technology, but it was definitely not a fully autonomous vehicle. Uber intended for the vehicle to be attended by a human driver who would provide all emergency braking, and that puts the responsibility back on a human. Whether the driver is convicted of a crime or not, there was still a driver in charge.
If anything, this case should serve as an important reminder to our readers who have a vehicle with advanced driver assistance systems, such as Tesla’s Autopilot. Sure, the vehicle is fairly good at driving itself, and for Tesla vehicles it’s getting better over time with updates. However, whether you’re driving a Tesla, a LEAF, or a Cadillac, you’re still legally responsible for what the vehicle does. That doesn’t leave us any room for sleeping, reading, or watching TV shows.
If you don’t pay attention and be careful, you could just as easily become the subject of a police investigation and risk serving time in prison. More importantly, life and limb is at stake, and not just your own.