It finally happened.
While it has taken over two years for Maricopa County, Arizona to decide who, if anyone, is responsible for a self-driving car, owned and controlled by Uber, killing a pedestrian walking her bicycle, the alleged perpetrator has finally been indicted.
It was the backup driver!!!
Admittedly, she’s a natural target of blame. She was in the literal driver’s seat. She had not one, but two mobile phones with her, violating her employment agreement, and one of the phones was allegedly streaming The Voice on one of them.
She’s charged with negligent homicide. At one level, it seems like a positive development, as usually drivers are not even indicted for killing people. They’re usually given a ticket and sent on their way. The pedestrian was not in the crosswalk, so that usually means the driver is only charged with someone innocuous like failure to yield. But possibly watching a video on a phone is fairly negligent-seeming, so they got her for that, I guess.
The day after the fatal crash occurred, the Tempe police chief seemed to be pointing blame away from Uber because she didn’t think that the car had time to react. “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode [autonomous or human-driven] based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.” The chief was, even then, suggesting the driver was to blame.
Only the driver wasn’t driving. Uber’s car was.
“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” County Attorney Allister Adel said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “When a driver gets behind the wheel of a car, they have a responsibility to control and operate that vehicle safely and in a law-abiding manner.”
It seems strange that the person not driving is the person deemed responsible. Her job was to take control of the car when she saw something going wrong, but how would she know when that was occurring? Would she have more than a second to correct the car’s error? Her job is to trust the car, but she’s being charged as if she was driving. She’s also not even an employee of Uber, just another freelancer performing a high-stress job, where it’s hard to tell if the worker was adequately trained or if the hours she’s expected to work under such conditions is safe outside of Uber’s claims.
If Uber, the corporation was driving, then Uber should be responsible. After all, we’ve been told repeatedly “corporations are people.” Turns out, that it’s a real legal concept. Only it’s used to free corporations from responsibility; all upside for them. And it’s based on a lie, but that’s for another day.
This is very much the embodiment of my fear that the key to putting self-driving cars on the road is allowing corporations to evade responsibility for the misdeeds of their cars. I detailed that concern here.
Uber has been asked by several outlets for comment. They have declined.
I very much want drivers to be held responsible for their actions behind the wheel of a car, but the woman sitting in the driver’s seat doesn’t seem like the responsible party. This seems like Uber setting up a patsy to take the fall for them while they continue pushing their technology. Currently, Uber’s site claims computers are driving cars in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, with training going on in Dallas, Toronto, and Washington, DC. No word on their site if humans are sitting in the driver’s seats there, to ‘take over’ when need be. There’s no notice on their site about this failure in Arizona, nor does it merit mention in their published “safety report.” This kind of omission, hiding the very human component that makes self-driving cars possible should both be expected and called out, as tech companies routinely hide the grinding, often underpaid, sometimes dangerous, labor that actually makes their shiny ‘cutting edge’ tech work.
How this matter is adjudicated will probably have repercussions for the future of autonomous vehicles. Currently, some parties are predicting that it they could be a common sight in cities within a year or two. But, then, people have been promising self-driving cars just around the corner for a decade.
Uber, which settled with the victim’s family with a few months of the crash, details of the settlement are unknown, is very much the responsible party here. Yet, this deadly crash barely seems to qualify as a speed bump for them. They’re busy erasing it from history, so they can continue to evangelize the glory of autonomous vehicles to keep the public interested and their share prices high.
Here’s hoping this very real danger is more than just a speed bump for them.