How Not to Write About the Fatal Uber Self-Driving Car Crash


Last week, a self-driving car being tested by Uber hit and killed a female pedestrian—the first case of its kind.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking her bike across the road in Tempe, AZ, when she was struck and killed by the car. Uber was testing the car with a human “monitor” inside the vehicle. In the wake of Herzberg’s death, Uber has suspended its test of autonomous vehicles in North America.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal published a story about the fatal accident with this headline:

This headline may lead you to believe the operator’s prior record may have had something to do with their ability to operate the self-driving car. In fact, it’s completely unrelated to the matter at hand.

From the WSJ:

According to Arizona Department of Corrections records, the driver was convicted and received a five-year sentence in Maricopa County for attempted armed robbery in 2000 and served the sentence concurrently with a one-year sentence for a false-statement conviction in 1999. In 1998, the driver pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended, revoked or canceled license in Tucson City Court and was cited for failing to produce proof of insurance and for driving without a current registration.

So to recap: eighteen years ago, this person made a mistake that has nothing to do with their ability to operate self-driving vehicles, and served their time for making said mistake. Then, in 2018, the driver who is supposed to monitor the vehicle witnessed a horrific crash that killed a woman. The Wall Street Journal then wrote a story about the accident, framed in such a way to suggest that these two disparate events are somehow connected.

Should the driver have been more attentive? Yes. Should Uber’s driver vetting process be interrogated? Sure. Should the blame for this incident fall completely on the shoulders of the driver? No. Does an 18-year-old conviction have anything to do with the matter at hand? No.

This is a complex and tragic story all around, and there are no easy answers to it, because we as a society have never dealt with something like this before. But the human driver’s unrelated criminal record (dredged up as evidence of what—foreshadowing?) should not be the focal point of this story.

We can and should reserve some blame for the multi-billion dollar company that put the car—and the driver—on the road in the first place.

[h/t Shane Ferro]

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