Uber not criminally liable in fatal 2018 Arizona self-driving crash: prosecutors

(Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc is not criminally liable in a March 2018 crash in Tempe, Arizona, in which one of the company’s self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian, prosecutors said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators examine a self-driving Uber vehicle involved in a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona, U.S., March 20, 2018. National Transportation Safety Board/Handout via REUTERS

The Yavapai County Attorney said in a letter made public that there was “no basis” for criminal liability for Uber, but that the conduct of the back-up driver, Rafael Vasquez, should be referred to the Tempe police for additional investigation.

Police said last year that Vasquez was streaming a television show on a phone until about the time of the crash and called the incident “entirely avoidable.”

An Uber spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter.

Vasquez could face charges of vehicular manslaughter, according to a police report last June. Vasquez has not previously commented and could not immediately be reached on Tuesday.

The Maricopa County Attorney, whose jurisdiction includes Tempe, referred the case last year to another office because of a conflict. In Tuesday’s letter Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Sullivan Polk said its investigation concluded that “the collision video, as it displays, likely does not accurately depict the events that occurred.”

The letter said an “expert analysis” is needed to “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 National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are still investigating the fatal crash.

The Uber car was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash, but the company, like other self-driving car developers, requires a back-up driver inside to intervene when the autonomous system fails or a tricky driving situation occurs.

The Tempe police report said Vasquez repeatedly looked down and not at the road, glancing up a half second before the car hit Elaine Herzberg, 49, who was crossing the street at night.

Police obtained records from Hulu, an online service for streaming TV shows and movies, which showed Vasquez’s account was playing the TV talent show “The Voice” for about 42 minutes on the night of the crash, ending at 9:59 p.m., which “coincides with the approximate time of the collision,” the report said.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office did not immediately comment on Tuesday.

In December, Uber resumed limited self-driving car testing on public roads in Pittsburgh, nine months after it suspended the program following the Arizona crash.

The company is now testing with two employees in the front seat and more strictly monitor safety employees. The company also said last year it made improvements to the vehicles’ self-driving software.

In March 2018, authorities in Arizona suspended Uber’s ability to test its self-driving cars. Uber also voluntarily halted its entire autonomous car testing program.

The NTSB has said Uber had disabled a manufacturer-installed automatic emergency braking system in the 2017 Volvo XC90 while the car was under computer control in order to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Grant McCool

Stella Densmore