Arizona prosecutors said Tuesday that they had not found evidence to charge Uber with a crime in connection with an accident in which one of its autonomous cars hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe a year ago.
On March 18, 2018, a Volvo sport utility vehicle, one of several self-driving vehicles that Uber was testing, was traveling about 40 miles per hour when it hit Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she was walking her bicycle across the street at night, the authorities said.
While the car was in autonomous mode, a safety driver was sitting in the driver’s seat.
The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office, which reviewed the case, said in a letter dated Monday that there was “no basis for criminal liability for the Uber corporation.”
But it added that investigators should look into what the safety driver “would or should have seen that night given the vehicle’s speed, lighting conditions, and other relevant factors.”
The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office said an investigation into the case was continuing.
In June, the Tempe Police Department released a report that said the safety driver was streaming the television show “The Voice” on her phone in the minutes leading up to the crash, The Arizona Republic reported.
Uber declined to comment Tuesday, as did the Tempe police. The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office did not answer further questions about how it reached its decision.
The March 2018 crash is believed to be the first pedestrian death resulting from self-driving technology, and many wondered how prosecutors would approach a criminal investigation.
The crash raised questions about the safety of the technology as well as the comprehensiveness of the rules governing it. Few such federal or state rules exist.“It’s not very well trod at all,” said Frank Douma, a research scholar at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies. “To my knowledge, there is not any sort of real bright-line statement about who’s liable when.”
Mr. Douma said prosecutors’ announcement Tuesday tracked with how typically people, and not car manufacturers, are held responsible for crimes they commit behind the wheel. But, as autonomous vehicles become more sophisticated, he said, such cases raise questions about that way of thinking.
“Is this driver, or was this driver, behaving in any way different than what most drivers are going to be behaving like when the car is doing this much driving?” he said. “It’s a very conventional way of thinking to say we can expect and we should expect people to sit and monitor technology that is otherwise doing all the decision-making.”
The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office did its review at the request of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which had a potential conflict of interest in the case because of an earlier partnership with Uber in a safety campaign. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
The New York Times reported last March that Uber’s autonomous cars in Arizona struggled to meet the company’s expectations and required drivers to intervene more frequently than those of the company’s competitors.
Uber suspended testing of self-driving vehicles after the crash. In December, the vehicles returned to public roads, though at reduced speeds and in less-challenging environments.
In a preliminary report about the crash released in May, the National Transportation Safety Board said the Uber car’s computer system had spotted Ms. Herzberg six seconds before impact, but classified Ms. Herzberg, who was not in a crosswalk, first as an unrecognized object, then as another vehicle and finally as a bicycle.
The Uber car, equipped with Uber’s sensing technology, comes with an automatic emergency braking system from the manufacturer.
But Uber had disabled that function as well as other safety features to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” according to the report, putting the onus on the safety driver to intervene.
The agency said Uber’s safety driver grabbed the steering wheel to swerve at the last second but did not start braking until after impact.
The Republic reported last March that family members of Ms. Herzberg had “resolved” a case against Uber. The Republic said that the family was represented by the law firm Bellah Perez, which said Tuesday that it could not comment on whether the firm had been involved in the case.