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Could Uber face charges in self-driving vehicle death of Tempe woman?

This image made from video Sunday, March 18, 2018, of a mounted camera provided by the Tempe Police Department shows an exterior view moments before an Uber SUV hit a woman in Tempe, Ariz. Video of a deadly self-driving vehicle crash in suburban Phoenix shows the pedestrian walking from a darkened area onto a street just moments before the crash. (Tempe Police Department via AP)

PHOENIX — Despite a recent federal report that found an Uber self-driving car was aware of a pedestrian’s presence seconds before it struck and killed her, it was not clear whether the company could face charges in the Tempe death.

“Uber, as the owner of the self-driving vehicle, could be liable for the death of Elaine Herzberger. The driver … could be found guilty of negligent homicide, which is a Class 4 felony,” said KTAR News 92.3 FM’s legal expert Monica Lindstrom.

The National Transportation Safety Board released Thursday a preliminary report on the March 18 incident. It said the Uber vehicle’s systems sensed Herzberger six seconds before the collision, which occurred as she was crossing the street at a poorly-lit area near Mill Avenue and Curry Road.

The report also found that the human backup driver, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, could have slowed the vehicle considerably before the incident. Video released in March showed that Vasquez was looking away from the road for several seconds leading up to the crash.

Lindstrom said the report could be used against the driver.

“If the prosecution charges the driver, they will use the fact that the driver wasn’t paying attention at the time of the death,” she said.

“Even though this was a self-driving vehicle, the driver still had the job of looking and paying attention to what was going on.”

Vasquez told NTSB investigators she’d been monitoring the “self-driving interface” when the incident occurred. While her personal and business telephones were in the vehicle, she said neither was in use at the time of the crash.

The NTSB noted the vehicle’s emergency-braking system was not enabled. Uber’s policy was not to power up that system when its vehicles are under computer control to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior.”

The company says it relies on human backup drivers to intervene in emergencies.

Tempe police have turned over their findings to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for review. MCAO spokeswoman Amanda Jacinto said the office received the file Wednesday but declined to comment on the case.

Uber pulled its tests of self-driving vehicles in Arizona on Wednesday. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey had already ordered the driverless road tests to stop in late March.

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