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Uber deemed not criminally liable for fatal autonomous car crash

Uber is not being held liable for the death of a woman who was killed by one of its autonomous cars in the US last year

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Uber is not responsible for the death of a woman who was killed by one of its autonomous test cars in an accident in the US in 2018, a court investigation has found.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was killed when she was struck by the vehicle at 44mph when she was walking her bicycle across a road in Tempe, Arizona.

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Despite a county attorney having decided the ride-hailing company is not criminally liable for the accident, the car’s humam backup driver – Rafaela Vasquez – could still face charges.

It has been reported by police that Vasquez was distracted at the time of the crash, with evidence suggesting she may have been streaming an episode of The Voice on her smartphone, and the fatal accident could have been avoided if she had been her eyes had been on the road instead.

Autonomous Uber car involved in fatal US crash

A self-driving car operated by the ride-hailing company Uber has been involved in a fatal accident with a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

The pedestrian, named by police as 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was reported to have been crossing the road when she was struck. Despite being rushed to hospital, she later died from her injuries.

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Driverless cars: everything you need to know

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Reports indicate while a driver was present behind the wheel, the car was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision. No passengers were in the Uber when the collision occurred. 

The chief of Tempe police, Sylvia Moir, subsequently indicated the cause of the accident lay not with the autonomous car: “I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident", Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Having viewed a video of the incident captured by the self-driving car, Moir said: “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway." 

Uber has suspended all trials of self-driving cars in light of the incident. The company has been running a fleet of autonomous vehicles across various locations in North America, including Pittsburgh, Toronto and San Francisco.

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A brief statement released by the company said: "Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident."

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An earlier statement released by Tempe police described the incident further: "The vehicle involved is one of Uber's self-driving vehicles. It was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, with a vehicle operator behind the wheel.

"The vehicle was traveling northbound just south of Curry Rd. when a female walking outside of the crosswalk crossed the road from west to east when she was struck by the Uber vehicle. She was transported to a local area hospital where she passed away from her injuries. Her next of kin has not been notified yet so her name is not being released at this time. Uber is assisting and this is still an active investigation."

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The crash follows a fatal accident in May 2016, when the driver of a Tesla Model S in Autopilot semi-autonomous mode died after his car collided with a lorry. Investigations indicated the Tesla's Autopilot system failed to differentiate between the truck’s white trailer and a bright sky.

This latest crash is the first time a pedestrian has been reported killed in an accident involving an autonomous car, however, and is likely to force policymakers to look closely at future legislation that allows self-driving car testing on public roads.

Earlier this month, the UK Government announced a wide-ranging legal review into self-driving cars, with a view to investigating how “current driving laws can support the next generation of vehicles.”

Are self-driving cars safe? And if not, can they be made so? Join the debate in the comments...

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