While Vasquez and Uber may find some closure in the plea deal, self-driving expert Bryant Walker Smith says the NTSB should revisit the Slack issue to find the truth. “I don’t want the story of the first automated vehicle fatality to be a lie. Or be a matter of disputes,” says Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of Southern Carolina. “We should get answers.” Watching a show would suggest some culpability for Vasquez, he says; watching Slack raises questions about Uber’s policies and practices.
The alleged problems with Uber’s self-driving car program were serious enough that a former operations manager of the self-driving-truck division, Robbie Miller, had written a whistleblower email to higher-ups in the days before the fatal Arizona crash, warning about the car division’s poor safety record and practices. After Startup’s story on Vasquez published last year, Miller told Startup that he hoped that Vasquez would take the case to trial, not settle. (Miller is now chief safety officer at autonomous haulage company Pronto AI.)
“I hope she fights it,” Miller said at the time. “I do think she has some responsibility in this, but I really don’t think what they’re doing to her is right. I think she was just put in a really bad situation where a lot of other people under the same set of circumstances would have made that mistake.”
According to Vasquez’s court filings, another former Uber employee, a technical program manager in the self-driving-car division, went so far as to call the Tempe police after the crash, saying that the company had ignored risks. Other employees who talked to Startup were also uneasy that Vasquez stood to bear all the criminal blame. (A year after the crash, Arizona prosecutors cleared Uber of criminal liability.)
Vasquez’s guilty plea joins a similar resolution this summer in Southern California, where a driver was criminally prosecuted for failing to take his Tesla out of Autopilot in a 2019 crash that resulted in two adults’ deaths—the first US prosecution of its kind. Kevin George Aziz Riad had his hand on the wheel, a Tesla rep had testified, as his Tesla ran a red light at 74 miles per hour and hit a car, killing two people inside. In June he pleaded no contest to two felony counts of vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to two years of probation, avoiding prison.
Vasquez’s guilty plea lands in a summer rife with worry over the dangers of AI. California has become the site of a battle over whether Cruise’s and Waymo’s self-driving robotaxis can charge for full-time service to the public, with San Francisco officials arguing the tech isn’t yet ready or safe. But as the self-driving advocates have long argued, the status quo isn’t exactly safe either: The industry’s mission is to remove human error from driving, which kills more than 40,000 people in the US each year. Arguably, the fault in the Tempe fatality was also all too human too: a combination of the human recklessness that went into Uber’s flawed test program and Vasquez’s failure to watch the road.
Beyond the courtroom, Uber faced upheaval: The crash marked the beginning of the end of the company’s self-driving unit, which was eventually shuttered and offloaded. Still, Uber bought a stake of the company that acquired its division, and Uber announced it will be offering Waymo cars on its ride-hailing platform in Arizona later this year, ensuring that the company will have a foothold in the self-driving future without developing a car itself. (“I’m not sure that’s a great story of remorse and consequence,” Walker Smith says.) Herzberg is gone, and Vasquez has faced five years of legal purgatory alone, with three more years of probation still in front of her. “It is disturbing to me,” Miller, the whistleblower, told Startup of the prosecution of Vasquez. “It just seems like it’s easy to pin it on her.”