Police: Felon controlled self-driving Uber that killed woman

By Sommer Brokaw  |  Updated March 20, 2018 at 4:44 PM
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March 20 (UPI) -- The person who controlled a self-driving Uber vehicle that killed an Arizona woman this week was a convicted felon, authorities said Tuesday.

Tempe police spokesman Sgt. Ronald Elcock said the Uber vehicle, a Volvo, was in "autonomous mode" at the time of the accident -- though there was a human controller at the wheel.

Investigators said the Volvo struck Elaine Herzberg outside a crosswalk. Doctors pronounced Herzberg, 49, dead at a Tempe hospital.

"Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the pedestrian who was struck crossing the street," Elcock said.

Police identified the controller as Rafaela Vasquez, 44, who had served prison time on an armed robbery conviction before her release in 2005.

The incident is not the first in which the San Francisco-based ride-sharing company has come under fire for hiring felons.

In November, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission company slapped Uber's parent company with an $8.9 million fine after an investigation found nearly 60 drivers had felony convictions -- violations of Colorado law.

Uber said the hiring was due to a "process area" inconsistent with ride-sharing regulations.

After the crash, Uber suspended its self-driving tests on public roads across the United States and Canada. Uber had been testing the technology in other cities, including San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

The Uber crash appears to have impacted other companies testing autonomous vehicles. Toyota Motor Corp. halted its "Chauffeur" autonomous driving tests.

"Because we feel the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers, we have decided to temporarily pause our Chauffeur mode testing on public roads," Spokesman Brian Lyons said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg. Prior to the accident, the company had been considering teaming up with Uber's autonomous driving program, though a decision on a partnership has not been made.

Meanwhile, Apple, with 45 autonomous vehicles in California, ramped up its fleet of self-driving vehicles over the past couple months, TechCrunch reported, nearly doubling the number of vehicles it had since January. The Arizona crash may affect the way regulators approach deployment, though.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was investigating the fatal collision in Tempe.

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