While Vasquez and Uber may find closure in the plea deal, autonomous driving expert Bryant Walker Smith says the NTSB should reexamine the Slack issue to find out the truth. “I don’t want the story of the first fatal accident in an automated vehicle to be a lie. Or disputes arise,” says Walker Smith, law professor at the University of Southern Carolina. “We should get answers.” Watching a show would suggest some guilt from Vasquez, he says; Watching Slack raises questions about Uber’s policies and practices.
The alleged problems with Uber’s self-driving car program were so severe that in the days before the fatal accident in Arizona, a former operations manager for the self-driving truck division, Robbie Miller, wrote a whistleblower email to supervisors in the he warned of the auto division’s poor safety record and practices. After WIRED’s story about Vasquez was released last year, Miller told WIRED that he hoped Vasquez would take the case to court and not settle it. (Miller is now chief safety officer at autonomous transportation company Pronto AI.)
“I hope she fights it,” Miller said at the time. “While I think she has some responsibility for this, 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 many other people would have made that mistake in the same circumstances.”
According to Vasquez’s court filings, another former Uber employee, a technical program manager in the self-driving division, even went so far as to call the Tempe police after the accident, saying the company had ignored risks. Other employees who spoke to WIRED were also concerned that Vasquez would shoulder all the criminal blame. (A year after the crash, Arizona prosecutors acquitted Uber of criminal liability.)
Vasquez’s admission of guilt follows a similar ruling this summer in Southern California, where a driver was prosecuted for failing to take it out of autopilot mode in a 2019 crash that killed two adults — the first U.S. prosecution of its kind. Kevin George Aziz Riad had his hand on the wheel, a Tesla representative testified when his Tesla was going through a red light at 74 mph and crashed into a car, killing two people inside . In June he made no objection He was sentenced to two years’ probation on two counts of involuntary manslaughter, thus avoiding prison.
Vasquez’s admission of guilt comes during a summer of worries about the dangers of AI. California has become the scene of a dispute over whether Cruise and Waymo’s self-driving robot taxis can charge a fee for full-time service to the public, with San Francisco officials arguing the technology isn’t mature or safe. But, as advocates of autonomous driving have long argued, the status quo isn’t exactly safe either: The industry’s mission is to eliminate human error in driving, which kills more than 40,000 people in the US every year. The guilt for the Tempe death was arguably all too human, too: a combination of the human ruthlessness that went into Uber’s flawed testing program And Vasquez’s inability to pay attention to the road.
Outside the courtroom, Uber faced an uproar: the crash marked the beginning of the end of the company’s self-driving unit, which was eventually shut down and dumped. Still, Uber bought a stake in 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 to ensure the company’s future of self-driving without a car will develop a car itself. (“I’m not sure this is a great story of regret and consequences,” says Walker Smith.) Herzberg is dead, and Vasquez alone has had five years in purgatory with three more years of probation ahead of her. “It worries me,” Miller, the whistleblower, told WIRED about the prosecution of Vasquez. “It just seems like she can be blamed.”