| 3:18 PM EST

Uber Test Driver Pleads Not Guilty of Killing Pedestrian

Grand jury says driver is in charge, autonomous system or not.

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The monitor of an Uber test vehicle operating in autonomous mode faces a negligent homicide charge for killing a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., two years ago.

The fatality was the first caused by a fully automated vehicle. (Several fatalities have involved Tesla’s semi-automated Autopilot system.)

Where the Buck Stops

A grand jury says Rafael Vasquez, who also goes by Rafaela, was ultimately responsible for the vehicle’s safe operation, whether it was under robotic control or not.

Vasquez was watching a television program on a cellphone when the Volvo XC90 test car struck and killed Elaine Herzberg. She was walking her bicycle across a poorly lit section of the road at night.

Vasquez was supposed to be ready to take immediate control of the vehicle if necessary, but looked up and saw Herzberg only about one second before the 40 mph impact.

Uber’s Miscues

Uber reportedly had switched off the car’s built-in emergency braking system to avoid having it conflict with its own autonomous driving software.

The company’s own system detected Herzberg six seconds before impact, according to investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. But they say the software couldn’t decide whether she was a vehicle, bicycle or some other object and took no action to swerve or brake. Vasquez applied the brakes one second after impact.

The crash prompted Uber to suspend testing nationwide for several months, disband the test unit in Arizona and hire a former federal safety expert to oversee the safety of its robotic-car program. The company resumed testing—but not in Arizona—nine months later.

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