Uber suspends self-driving car program after fatal accident in Tempe

The program has also been halted in Pittsburgh, Toronto and San Francisco

Uber has suspended its self-driving car program in Tempe as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto following a fatal accident on Mill Avenue Sunday night. 

Forty-nine-year-old Elaine Herzberg was killed Sunday night while crossing the street at Mill Avenue and Curry Road at around 10 p.m. when an autonomous Uber vehicle struck her, according to a statement from Tempe Police. She died after being taken to a local hospital. The accident has widely been reported as the first pedestrian death from a self-driving vehicle.

Tempe Police has identified the vehicle operator as 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, who wasn't impaired at the time of the accident, Tempe Police spokesman Sgt. Ronald Elcock said. 

Tempe Police has started an investigation into the accident. According to the preliminary investigation, the car was going about 40 miles per hour during the accident, and Elcock said there weren't significant signs of the vehicle slowing down. 

Members of federal groups including the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were in Tempe on Tuesday to investigate the accident. 

They will be working with Uber, and Tempe Police on the investigation throughout the week, according to a statement from Tempe Police. 

This investigation is going to the county attorney's office, which will determine if there will be charges, Elcock said. 

Sylvia Moir, Tempe chief of police, said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday that the accident may have been unavoidable regardless of whether the vehicle was autonomous or not. 

In Tuesday's police statement, however, Moir and the police department wanted to “reaffirm that fault has not been determined in this case. Tempe Police Detectives will complete the investigation and it will subsequently be submitted to The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to determine if criminal charges are warranted.”

There were no passengers in the vehicle, and there was one vehicle operator in the front seat, according to an Uber spokeswoman. 

"Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” Uber said in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident."

The program is one of several self-driving car initiatives active in Tempe, such as Alphabet's Waymo

Arizona has been a hub for testing self-driving vehicles because of friendly legislation and support from Gov. Doug Ducey

This isn't the first time Uber has suspended its self-driving program; the company also suspended the program after a non-fatal car crash in Arizona in 2017.

Elcock encouraged Tempe residents to use crosswalks whenever possible and said it would limit cases like these from happening. 

"The safety of our citizens here in Tempe is of the upmost importance, and we just want to make sure that our citizens are safe," Elcock said. "And if there's availability to do it, please use a crosswalk when you're crossing the street."

Editor's note: This story was last updated on March 20, 2018 at 7:10 p.m. to include new information from a statement from Tempe Police and the San Francisco Chronicle.


Reach the reporter at  Emmillma@asu.edu or follow @MillmanEthan on Twitter.

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