This is the driver who was behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber car when it hit and killed a pedestrian – in a mugshot taken when she was serving a felony sentence for attempted armed robbery.
Rafaela Vasquez, 44, was the ‘safety driver’ of the automated Volvo when it hit Elaine Herzberg, 49, on Sunday night in Tempe, Arizona.
She had two felony convictions when she was hired by Uber for its self-driving car trials in the Phoenix, Arizona, area.
Her January 2001 conviction for attempted armed robbery led to a five-year sentence of which she served more than four years, being freed in November 2004.
Vasquez attempted to rob a Blockbuster video store with an imitation firearm.
At the same time, Vasquez was convicted of unsworn falsification committed in 1999, meaning she made a false statement to a public officials, and received a concurrent one year sentence.
At the time she was known as Rafael and identified as male. It is not known when she transitioned to female.
Felon: Rafaela Vasquez, who was then known as Rafael, has two felony convictions of which she was found guilty when she identified as a man. Vasquez was sentenced to five years in prison for attempted armed robbery in January 2000, and given a one-year concurrent sentence for making a false statement. It is unclear when Vasquez began identifying as female
Victim: Elaine Herzberg, 49, was homeless and had a string of drugs convictions when she was killed walking in front of the Uber self-driving car on Sunday night
Vasquez was supposed to act as a ‘safety driver’ and take control of the vehicle if anything went wrong.
She told police that Herzberg, who had herself spent time in prison for drug offenses, stepped out in front of her with a bicycle carrying multiple shopping bags and that she had no time to brake before it hit her.
She was traveling at 40 mph at the time, well within the 45 mph speed limit and insisted that she was alert but that nothing could have been done to stop the crash.
Her story was supported by footage from cameras fitted at the front and back of the Volvo SUV that Vasquez was in control of. Police have not yet revealed that footage.
At first, police wrongly described Vasquez as a man.
‘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,’ Sylvia Moir, Tempe Police Chief, told The San Francisco Chronicle on Monday.
‘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,’ Herzberg said.
Rafaela Vasquez was behind the wheel of the self-driving Volvo SUV which struck Herzberg. Police say she stepped in front of it with her bicycle (shown above next to the car)
The bicycle was laden down with shopping bags which contained the woman’ belongings
Herzberg was taken to hospital but died of her injuries. She is shown (left) in a social media photograph and (right) in another mugshot
The accident prompted Uber to pull all of its self-driving cars in Arizona and in Pittsburgh and Toronto, where they are also being operated in test mode.
The fatal crash is the first of its kind since the cars were introduced to roads in 2016. A separate incident last year saw one vehicle flip onto its side.
Herzberg’s death has sparked concern over whether the vehicles should be trusted in the same way as regular cars but police have since said that the company is not at fault.
It is not clear if or when Uber plans to return the vehicles to the road.
In a statement, an Uber spokesman told DailyMail.com on Tuesday: ‘Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with authorities and investigations of this incident.’
Vasquez, 44, was found guilty of conspiring with a friend to rob $2,792.28 from the Scottsdale Branch of Blockbuster Video, and of using an imitation firearm to commit the crime, according to court records obtained by DailyMail.com.
Vasquez, who worked for the entertainment chain at the time, was with another employee Gil Knishinsky when Joshua Page held them up outside a nearby branch of Bank of America and relieved them of the day’s takings, as well as Knishinsky’s wallet.
It later transpired that Vasquez had plotted the attack with Page, who used a Hobby Bench model gun to carry out the attack.
After accepting a plea deal, Vasquez was sentenced to a five-year prison term on January 18 2001 which she served at ASPC Florence – a mixed security jail.
Prison records show Vasquez worked as a landscaper, a cook, an education aide and as an administrative assistant during her time inside.
Vasquez, who is originally from Tucson, Arizona, is one of four children. and lost her mother at the age of three, according to letters of recommendation lodged with Maricopa County Superior Court.
Letters sent before sentencing paint a troubled picture.
This was the scene of the crash the following day. There were remnants of one of Herzberg’s plastic bags on the road
Younger sister Cristina, 36, described Vasquez as a person ‘who taught me to look on the bright side of things’ and ‘that to be different was a privilege and being different was what made the world so interesting’.
Vasquez’ father, Rafael, 81, said his child was ‘responsible and dedicated to his job’ and begged Judge Louis Araneta to ‘strongly consider the minimum possible sentence’.
But an uncle Richard Wall said Vasquez, known to the family by middle name ‘Stuart’ as a child, was ‘a really mixed up young man’ who needs help ‘but not the kind you get in prison’.
He added: ‘His father married again right after Stuart’s mother died and they moved away and started another family. Stuart was only three years old, and I believe he was not given the love and attention he needed from a loving mother and father.’
A second aunt, Portress Caple, also told the court Vasquez had been badly affected by losing her mother aged three and said the family continued to call her Stuart ‘contrary to what name he gives himself’.
Caple continued: ‘We have been corresponding regularly with Stuart since he has been in jail. His letters are very disturbing. He talks about wanting to die.
‘He is very remorseful and vows that he will never break the law again.’
Herzberg herself had a criminal history and had been in and out of custody for minor offenses.
Neither she nor the driver are thought to have been under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash.
No charges have been brought against Vasquez and Uber has been tight lipped about the matter, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Toyota pauses self-driving car testing after fatal Uber accident, saying the incident ‘may have an emotional effect on our test drivers’
By Cheyenne Macdonald For Dailymail.com and Reuters
Toyota has suspended its ‘Chauffeur’ self-driving car tests on public roads in the US, following the first ever death involving a fully autonomous vehicle.
Citing Sunday evening’s tragic incident, in which a Volvo SUV in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, the firm says it is pausing the program with its test drivers’ emotional well-being in mind, according to Bloomberg.
At the time of the crash, a human backup driver was sitting behind the wheel to supervise the self-driving Uber’s operations.
‘Safety driver’ Rafaela Vasquez, 44, was riding inside the autonomous vehicle when it fatally struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, on Sunday night.
According to Vasquez, the homeless woman abruptly stepped out in front of the car while it was traveling roughly 40 miles per hour.
While preliminary probes have shown Uber may not be at fault, the firm has since pulled all of its self-driving cars from public testing.
And now, Toyota is following suit.
‘Because we feel the incident may have an emotional effect on our test drivers, we have decided to temporarily pause our Chauffeur mode testing on public roads,’ Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons told Bloomberg in an emailed statement.
The firm had been doing tests on public roads in Michigan and California, and was even planning to join forces with Uber to further develop autonomous driving technology.
Without citing sources, Japanese business daily Nikkei said last week that the two firms were negotiating a possible deal for Toyota to use Uber’s automated driving technology in one of the automaker’s minivan models.
The report also claimed Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi met with Toyota executives in the US this month.
But, the automaker hadn’t yet made a decision on whether it would buy the software, according to Bloomberg.
So far, officials say it doesn’t appear Uber is at fault in the accident. The videos have not yet been released.
‘The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,’ Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Arizona, told the San Francisco Chronicle .
‘His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.’
Based on the videos, Moir added, ‘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.’
Separately, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix said it was awaiting the results of an investigation by Tempe police of the fatality before reviewing whether any charges should be filed.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also are investigating the accident.
The death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg late on Sunday after she was struck by a Volvo sport utility vehicle operating in autonomous mode is the first such fatality for the nascent self-driving car industry.
The death is drawing fresh attention to questions about the safety of autonomous vehicle systems, and the challenges of testing them on public streets.