Death of Elaine Herzberg

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Elaine Herzberg
Elaine Marie Wood

(1968-08-02)August 2, 1968
DiedMarch 18, 2018(2018-03-18) (aged 49)
Burial placePhoenix, Arizona[1]
EducationApache Junction High School, Apache Junction, Arizona[1]
Known forFirst pedestrian to be killed by a self-driving car
Home townTempe, Arizona
Spouse(s)Mike Herzberg (until his death); Rolf Erich Ziemann (until Elaine's death)[1]

The death of Elaine Herzberg (August 2, 1968 – March 18, 2018) was the first recorded case of a pedestrian killed by a self-driving (autonomous) car, following a collision that occurred late in the evening of March 18, 2018. Herzberg was pushing a bicycle across a four-lane road in Tempe, Arizona, United States, when she was struck by an Uber taxi, which was operating in self-drive mode with a human safety backup driver sitting in the driving seat. Following the collision, Herzberg was taken to hospital where she died of her injuries.[2][3][4]

As a result of the fatal incident, Uber immediately suspended testing of self-driving vehicles in Arizona,[5] where such testing had been welcomed since August 2016.[6] Uber also decided not to renew its permit for autonomous vehicle testing in California when it expired at the end of March 2018.[7]

A Washington Post reporter compared Herzberg's fate with that of Bridget Driscoll who, in the United Kingdom in 1896, was the first pedestrian to be killed by an automobile.[8]

Collision summary[edit]

Herzberg was crossing Mill Avenue (North) from west to east, approximately 360 feet (110 m) south of the intersection with Curry Road, outside the crosswalk,[9][10] close to the Red Mountain Freeway. She was pushing a bicycle laden with shopping,[2] and had crossed at least two lanes of traffic when she was struck[5] at approximately 9:58 pm MST (UTC–7)[9] by the autonomous car, an Uber Volvo XC90 taxi, which was travelling north on Mill.[11][12] The vehicle had been operating in autonomous mode[13] since 9:39 pm, nineteen minutes before it struck and killed Herzberg.[9] It seems that the car's human safety backup driver, Ms. Rafaela Vasquez,[2] did not intervene before the collision as the vehicle did not appear to slow down or swerve.[14] Vehicle telemetry obtained after the crash showed that the human operator responded by moving the steering wheel less than a second before impact, and she engaged the brakes less than a second after impact.[9]

Cause investigation[edit]

The self-driving Uber Volvo XC90 involved, with damage on the right front side.

The first accounts of the crash were conflicting in terms of vehicle speed and posted speed limit,[15][16] with some of the disparity sourced to a preliminary police investigation, which incorrectly stated that the car was traveling at 38 mph (61 km/h) in a 35 mph (56 km/h) zone and did not attempt to brake. The New York Times later reported the speed limit was 45 mph (72 km/h).[17] Evidence subsequently surfaced of a cozy relationship between Uber and the state Governor that allowed and protected an immature technology on the streets, and may have influenced preliminary conclusions of the accident.[18][19] Moreover, the county district attorney's office recused itself from the investigation, due to a prior joint partnership with Uber promoting their services as an alternative to driving under the influence of alcohol.[20] Some later points of focus by federal investigators have indicated that the absolute maximum speed permitted by law may not be material in the nocturnal crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team of federal investigators to gather data from vehicle instruments, and to examine vehicle condition along with the actions taken by the safety driver.[21] Their preliminary findings were substantiated by many event data recorders and proved the vehicle was traveling 43 miles per hour (69 km/h) when Elaine was first detected 6 seconds (378 feet) before impact; it was unable to determine that emergency braking was needed another 4 more seconds.[9] A vehicle traveling 45 mph (72 km/h) can generally stop within 195 feet (59 m).[22] Because the machine needed to be 1.3 seconds (76 feet) away prior to discerning that emergency braking was required, whereas at least that much distance was required to stop, it was exceeding its assured clear distance ahead,[23] and hence driving too fast for the conditions.[24][25][26][27][9] A total stopping distance of 76 feet itself would imply a safe speed under 25 mph,[22] whereas human intervention was still legally required. Computer perception–reaction time would have been a speed limiting factor had the technology been superior to humans in ambiguous situations;[28] however, the nascent computerized braking technology was disabled the day of the crash, and the machine's apparent 4 second perception–reaction (alarm) time was instead an added delay to the still requisite 1–2 second human perception–reaction time. Video released by the police on March 21 showed the safety driver was not watching the road moments before the vehicle struck Herzberg.[29] Notwithstanding perception and reaction times, 43 mph also commands a braking distance slightly greater than 76 feet.[22]


Vicinity of Mill Avenue (running north–south) and Curry/Washington (east–west) in Tempe, Arizona

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir stated the collision was "unavoidable" based on the initial police investigation, which included a review of the video captured by an onboard camera.[30] Moir faulted Herzberg for crossing the road in an unsafe manner: "It is dangerous to cross roadways in the evening hour when well-illuminated, managed crosswalks are available."[31] According to Uber, safety drivers were trained to keep their hands very close to the wheel all the time while driving the vehicle so they were ready to quickly take control if necessary.[32]

The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them. His [sic] first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision. [...] 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.

— Chief Sylvia Moir, Tempe Police, San Francisco Chronicle interview, March 19, 2018[31]
Aerial photograph of the area where the collision occurred, facing approximately north. Mill Avenue runs from the top left corner to the bottom right corner (north–south), and the ornamental brick-lined median is just south of the intersection with Curry/Washington.

Tempe police released video on March 21 showing footage recorded by two onboard cameras: one forward-looking, and one capturing the safety driver's actions. The forward-facing video shows the autonomous car was traveling in the far right lane when it struck Herzberg. The driver-facing video shows the safety driver was looking down prior to the collision.[5] The Uber operator is responsible for intervening and taking manual control when necessary as well as for monitoring diagnostic messages, which are displayed on a screen in the center console. In an interview conducted after the crash with NTSB, the driver stated she was monitoring the center stack at the time of the collision.[9]

After the video was released, journalist Carolyn Said noted the police explanation of Herzberg's path meant she had already crossed two lanes of traffic before she was struck by the autonomous vehicle.[5] The Marquee Theatre and Tempe Town Lake are west of Mill Avenue, and pedestrians commonly cross mid-street without detouring north to the crosswalk at Curry.[12] According to reporting by the Phoenix New Times, Mill Avenue contains what appears to be a brick-lined path in the median between the northbound and southbound lanes.[12] However, posted signs prohibit pedestrians from using it, as it is strictly ornamental.[33]

Software issues[edit]

Michael Ramsey, an autonomous car expert with Gartner, characterized the video as showing "a complete failure of the system to recognize an obviously seen person who is visible for quite some distance in the frame. Uber has some serious explaining to do about why this person wasn’t seen and why the system didn’t engage."[5]

James Arrowood, a lawyer specializing in driverless cars in Arizona, noted the software may have decided to proceed after assuming that Herzberg would yield the right of way.[14] Arizona law (ARS 28-793)[34] states that pedestrians crossing the street outside a crosswalk shall yield to cars.[12] Per Arrowood, "The computer makes a decision. It says, 'Hey, there is this object moving 10 or 15 feet to left of me, do I move or not?' It (could be) programmed, I have a right of way, on the assumption that whatever is moving will yield the right of way."[14]

As of March 2018, Uber autonomous vehicles were unable to meet a self-imposed goal of 13 mi (21 km) between manual interventions. For comparison, autonomous vehicles from Waymo were reaching 5,600 mi (9,000 km) and vehicles from Cruise Automation were exceeding 1,200 mi (1,900 km) between interventions.[35]

Playback of self-driving system data at 1.3 seconds before impact. Distances shown in meters.

The recorded telemetry showed the system had detected Herzberg six seconds before the crash, and classified her first as an unknown object, then as a vehicle, and finally as a bicycle, each of which had a different predicted path according to the autonomy logic. 1.3 seconds prior to the impact, the system determined that emergency braking was required, which is normally performed by the vehicle operator. However, the system was not designed to alert the operator, and did not make an emergency stop on its own accord, as "emergency braking maneuvers are not enabled while the vehicle is under computer control, to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior", according to Uber.[9]

Sensor issues[edit]

Brad Templeton, who provided consulting for autonomous driving competitor Waymo, noted the car was equipped with advanced sensors, including radar and LiDAR, which would not have been affected by the darkness. Templeton stated "I know the [sensor] technology is better than that, so I do feel that it must be Uber’s failure."[5] Arrowood also recognized potential sensor issues: "Really what we are going to ask is, at what point should or could those sensors recognize the movement off to the left. Presumably she was somewhere in the darkness."[14]

In a press event conducted by Uber in Tempe in 2017, safety drivers touted the sensor technology, saying they were effective at anticipating jaywalkers, especially in the darkness, stopping the autonomous vehicles before the safety driver can even see pedestrians. However, manual intervention by the safety drivers was required to avoid a collision with another vehicle on at least one instance with a reporter from The Arizona Republic riding along.[36]

Uber announced they would replace their Ford Fusion-based autonomous fleet with cars based on the Volvo XC90 in August 2016; the XC90s sold to Uber would be prepared to receive Uber's vehicle control hardware and software, but would not include any of Volvo's own advanced driver-assistance systems.[37] Uber characterized the sensor suite attached to the Fusion as the "desktop" model, and the one attached to the XC90 as the "laptop", hoping to develop the "smartphone" soon.[38] According to Uber, the suite for the XC90 was developed in approximately four months.[39] The XC90 as modified by Uber included a single roof-mounted LiDAR sensor and 10 radar sensors, providing 360° coverage around the vehicle. In comparison, the Fusion had seven LiDAR sensors (including one mounted on the roof) and seven radar sensors. According to Velodyne, the supplier of Uber's LiDAR, the single roof-mounted LiDAR sensor has a narrow vertical range that prevents it from detecting obstacles low to the ground, creating a blind spot around the vehicle. Marta Hall, the president of Velodyne commented "If you’re going to avoid pedestrians, you’re going to need to have a side lidar to see those pedestrians and avoid them, especially at night." However, the augmented radar sensor suite would be able to detect obstacles in the LiDAR blind spot.[40]


On Thursday, June 21, the Tempe Police Department released a detailed report along with media captured after the collision, including an audio recording of the 911 call made by the safety driver, Rafaela Vasquez and an initial on-scene interview with a responding officer, captured by body worn video. After the crash, police obtained search warrants for Vasquez's cellphones as well as records from the video streaming services Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. The investigation concluded that because the data showed she was streaming The Voice over Hulu at the time of the collision, and the driver-facing camera in the Volvo showed "her face appears to react and show a smirk or laugh at various points during the time she is looking down", Vasquez may have been distracted from her primary job of monitoring road and vehicle conditions.[41] Tempe police concluded the crash was "entirely avoidable"[42] and faulted Vasquez for her "disregard for assigned job function to intervene in a hazardous situation".[41]

Records indicate that streaming began at 9:16 pm and ended at 9:59 pm. Based on an examination of the video captured by the driver-facing camera, Vasquez was looking down toward her right knee 166 times for a total of 6 minutes, 47 seconds[41] during the 21 minutes, 48 seconds preceding the crash.[43] Just prior to the crash, Vasquez was looking at her lap for 5.3 seconds; she looked up half a second before the impact.[42][44] Vasquez stated in her post-crash interview with the NTSB that she had been monitoring system messages on the center console, and that she did not use either one of her cell phones until she called 911.[9] According to an unnamed Uber source, safety drivers are not responsible for monitoring diagnostic messages.[45] Vasquez also told responding police officers she kept her hands near the steering wheel in preparation to take control if required, which contradicted the driver-facing video, which did not show her hands near the wheel.[41] Police concluded that given the same conditions, Herzberg would have been visible to 85% of motorists at a distance of 143 feet (44 m), 5.7 seconds before the car struck Herzberg. According to the police report, Vasquez should have been able to apply the brakes at least 0.57 seconds sooner, which would have provided Herzberg sufficient time to pass safely in front of the car.[43]

The police report was turned over to the Yavapai County Attorney's Office for review of possible manslaughter charges.[41] The Maricopa County Attorney's Office recused itself from prosecution over a potential conflict of interest, as it had earlier participated with Uber in a March 2016 campaign against drunk driving.[46]

Other factors[edit]

According to the preliminary report of the collision released by the NTSB, a toxicology report for Elaine Herzberg tested positive for methamphetamine and marijuana. This toxicology test was carried out on Ms. Herzberg after the collision.[9]


After the collision that killed Herzberg, Uber ceased testing autonomous vehicles in all four cities (Tempe, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Toronto) where it had deployed them.[5] On March 26, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey sent a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, suspending Uber's autonomous car testing in the state. In the letter, Ducey stated "As governor, my top priority is public safety. Improving public safety has always been the emphasis of Arizona's approach to autonomous vehicle testing, and my expectation is that public safety is also the top priority for all who operate this technology in the state of Arizona."[47]

Prior to the fatal incident, Governor Ducey had encouraged Uber to enter the state.[6] Ducey signed Executive Order 2015-09 on August 25, 2015, entitled "Self-Driving Vehicle Testing and Piloting in the State of Arizona; Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee", establishing a welcoming attitude to autonomous vehicle testing.[48][49] According to Ducey's office, the committee, which consists of eight state employees appointed by the governor, has met twice since it was formed.[6]

In December 2016, Ducey had released a statement welcoming Uber's autonomous cars: "Arizona welcomes Uber self-driving cars with open arms and wide open roads. While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses."[50] Emails between Uber and the office of the governor showed that Ducey was informed autonomous vehicle testing would begin in August 2016, several months ahead of the official announcement welcoming Uber in December.[6] On March 1, 2018, Ducey signed Executive Order (XO) 2018-04, outlining regulations for autonomous vehicles. Notably, XO 2018-04 requires the company testing autonomous cars to provide a written statement that "the fully autonomous vehicle will achieve a minimal risk condition" if a failure occurs.[51]

Uber announced it would not renew its permit to test autonomous cars in California after the California Department of Motor Vehicles sent a letter to Uber telling the company that its permit would expire on March 31, and "any follow-up analysis or investigations from the recent crash in Arizona" would have to be addressed before the permit could be renewed.[7]

Herzberg's daughter retained the law firm Bellah Perez.[14] Uber and the husband and daughter of Elaine Herzberg quickly reached an undisclosed settlement on March 28 while local and federal authorities continued their investigation.[52]

Uber's legal woes continued with Herzberg's mother, father and son retaining legal counsel.[53]

The incident caused some companies to temporarily cease road testing of autonomous vehicles. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has stated "We don’t know that we would do anything different, but we should give ourselves time to see if we can learn from that incident."[54]

On May 24, NTSB released a preliminary incident report, the news release saying that Herzberg "was dressed in dark clothing, did not look in the direction of the vehicle… crossed… in a section not directly illuminated by lighting… entered the roadway from a brick median, where signs…warn pedestrians to use a crosswalk… 360 feet north." Six seconds before impact, the vehicle was traveling 43MPH, and the system identified the woman and bicycle as an unknown object, next as a vehicle, then as a bicycle.[55] Only 1.3 seconds before hitting the pedestrian with her bike did the system flag the need for emergency braking, but it failed to do so, as the car hit Herzberg at 39 MPH.[56] Alas, the vehicle operator only "engaged the steering wheel less than a second before impact and began braking less than a second after impact".

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]