Who Killed Elaine Herzberg?

Who is ultimately to blame in the first self-driving car fatality — the technology, the victim, the safety driver, Uber, or the American city itself?

Jack Stilgoe
OneZero
Published in
8 min readDec 12, 2019

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Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) just released the final report of a crash in which a woman was killed after being hit by a self-driving car operated by Uber. The NTSB report excoriates Uber for its poor safety culture and takes issue with the threadbare rules that govern the testing of self-driving cars on public roads. But it also notes that there were methamphetamines found in the victim’s system, which may have impaired her ability to react to an approaching vehicle.

In an excerpt from his new book, Who’s Driving Innovation?, Jack Stilgoe, a professor in the science and technology studies department at University College London, argues for the need to learn from this tragedy as we develop a more intelligent approach to new technologies.

EElaine Herzberg did not know that she was part of an experiment. She was walking her bicycle across the road at 10 p.m. on a dark desert night in Tempe, Arizona. Having crossed three lanes of a four-lane highway, Herzberg was run down by a Volvo SUV traveling at 38 miles per hour. She was pronounced dead at 10:30 p.m.

The next day, the officer in charge of the investigation rushed to blame the pedestrian. Police Chief Sylvia Moir told a local newspaper, “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision… she came from the shadows right into the roadway… the driver said it was like a flash.” According to the rules of the road, Herzberg should not have been there. Had she been at the crosswalk just down the road, things would probably have turned out differently.

Rafaela Vasquez was behind the wheel, but she wasn’t driving. The car, operated by Uber, was in autonomous mode. Vasquez’s job was to monitor the computer that was doing the driving and take over if anything went wrong. A few days after the crash, the police released a video from a camera on the rear-view mirror. It showed Vasquez looking down at her knees in the seconds before the crash and for almost a third of the 21-minute journey that led up to it. Data taken from her phone suggested that she had…

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Jack Stilgoe
OneZero
Writer for

Jack Stilgoe is a professor in Science and Technology Studies at University College London. @jackstilgoe