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Uber agrees financial settlement with family of Arizona woman killed by self-driving car

The lawyer for Elaine Herzberg's daughter and husband says the matter has been resolved, as Uber comes under fresh pressure over links to Arizona governor.

Relatives of the woman killed by an Uber self-driving SUV have reached a settlement with the Silicon Valley start-up, forestalling a potentially lengthy legal battle over the first-known fatality involving an autonomous vehicle (AV).

Cristina Perez Hesano, a lawyer for the daughter and husband of Elaine Herzberg, 49, said the matter had now been resolved between Uber and Herzberg’s family.

No details of the terms of the settlement were revealed.

Herzberg, known as ‘Elle’ to friends, died after being struck by the Uber-owned car in the suburb of Tempe in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this month. Dashcam footage released to the media appeared to show Herzberg wandering into the middle of a four-lane highway at night carrying multiple bags and pushing a bicycle. She had reportedly been sleeping rough and had previously spent time in prison for drugs offences.

Other footage from inside the car showed a human being in the driver’s seat of the Uber SUV, apparently looking down and not at the road in the seconds immediately prior to the accident. The car was on autopilot and was driving at 38 mph at the time – well within the 45mph speed limit for the area – but Arizona state regulations dictated that a human should always be on hand to take control of the wheel should the need arise.

The confirmation of the settlement between Herzberg’s family and Uber follows allegations that Arizona’s governor Doug Ducey had agreed to let a self-driving car testing programme take place in the state with limited oversight from experts and without properly informing the public after becoming unusually close to the tech company.

The Guardian reported that Ducey – who has now suspended Uber’s right to operate AVs on public roads in Arizona - had previously enjoyed a “cosy” relationship with the firm. His staff are said to have been offered workspace by Uber, while the tech company heaped praise on the Republican and promised to bring jobs and money to his state. For his part, Ducey tweeted advertising promoting Uber at the company’s behest and he even appears to have been open to wearing an Uber T-shirt at an event, according to the Guardian.

The New York Times reported that Uber’s robotic-vehicle project was “not living up to expectations” even before the Tempe incident, with cars said to have been having trouble driving through construction zones and alongside tall vehicles. Company insiders noted that occupants of Uber’s self-driving vehicles had to intervene more frequently than was the case with competitor AVs. Employees of the company have reportedly been gagged from speaking out about their concerns over Uber’s autonomous vehicle technology.

Friends of Herzberg said last week that Uber should be shut down over the incident. The company has faced criticism before over unrelated scandals concerning sex attacks by its drivers, which Uber allegedly tried to hide because of concerns over the possible impact on its brand. Transport for London (TfL) also decided not to renew Uber’s licence to operate in the UK capital. 

Fall-out from Herzberg’s death could stall the development and testing of self-driving vehicles, which are designed to eventually perform far better than human drivers and sharply reduce the number of motor vehicle fatalities that occur each year. Uber has suspended its testing programme in the wake of the incident.

Toyota Motor Corp and chipmaker Nvidia Corp have also suspended self-driving car testing on public roads, as they and other companies await the results of an ongoing investigation into the Tempe incident, according to Reuters.

Uber does not use the self-driving platform architecture of Nvidia, the chipmaker’s Chief Executive Jensen Huang said earlier this week.

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