A screen grab from the video camera mounted inside a self-driving Uber just before the SUV fatally struck a bicyclist in Tempe, Ariz., on March 18, 2018.

A screen grab from the video camera mounted inside a self-driving Uber just before the SUV fatally struck a bicyclist in Tempe, Ariz., on March 18, 2018.

By Chip Scanlan

Journalism, by its very nature, focuses on the now — the events and people making the news today. But powerful stories can be found by mining the past to add fresh material and context to what had once been a sketchy breaking story, abandoned after a few news cycles. Revisiting such a story can pay off with new and unexpected results.

For years, Lauren Smiley, who writes about humans in the tech age, had kept track of Rafaela Vasquez. In 2018, Vasquez was at the wheel of an Uber self-driving Volvo when the car struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing a darkened road in Tempe, Arizona. She became the world’s first pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car.

“I often find my best projects by circling back to news events and chasing the deeper story,” Smiley told me. Her trip back in time produced “‘I am the operator’: The aftermath of a self-driving tragedy,” a gripping, 10,000-word narrative for Wired magazine published in March 2022.

Lauren Smiley, contributing writer at Wired

Lauren Smiley

Smiley displayed remarkable patience as she kept track of the post-crash investigation. Vasquez was charged negligent homicide in connection the crash (the case is scheduled to go to trial later this month, but could be further delayed) but had never spoken about it with a journalist. Two years after the accident, Smiley reached out to Vasquez’s defense lawyers, who gave the okay to sit down with their client.

To prepare, Smiley sent out a flurry of records requests, riding herd on them until agencies delivered. She studied a critical report of a voluminous investigation by federal transportation safety officials. After Uber declined to talk, she used LinkedIn to cold call dozens of past and present employees, many of who spoke on or off the record about the company’s flawed self-driving program. She reached out to Herzberg’s family to learn the impact of the crash on the victim’s mother and daughter.

The story focuses relentlessly, however, on Vasquez, a transgender woman who grew up with a religious, unaccepting father and suffered repeated sexual violence when a judge assigned her to serve a sentence with male inmates for a botched armed robbery attempt with her boyfriend. “I’d never had to have anal stitching before,” Vasquez told Smiley during a seven-hour interview, “but I had it in jail.”

Smiley funneled all of this data into multiple timelines, all annotated for the Wired fact-checker, a backstop that enabled her to reconstruct you-are-there portions of the narrative with limited attribution. Guided by her outlines, she put her inner critic on hold as she began to write. “First drafts are about infrastructure, not beauty!” she said.

Smiley weaves Vasquez’s story before and after the crash with a granular account, at times down to the hundredth of a second about how the confused computer on board the self-driving car misidentified Herzberg, a shadowy figure jaywalking on the road, and an authoritative look at the now-humbled state of the self-driving movement in the United States. It’s a compelling read, its relentless pace driven by carefully chosen descriptive verbs, a braided structure and elegant writing — elements that won it a SABEW Best in Business Award for features.

Smiley, a self-described “boots on the ground tech reporter,” is a contributor at Wired. She has written human-centered stories about technology for The Atlantic and New York Magazine. She was an investigative reporter for the “Broken Harts” true crime podcast and has worked on staff for Matter and SF Weekly.

In an email interview and annotation with Nieman Storyboard, Smiley discussed her methods for juggling multiple storylines, her education and writing influences and her editors’ essential role. In an annotation of the story, she goes into detail about how how she tracked the story for almost five years, how she gained access to a range of sources, ethical considerations about identifying sources and the story’s structure. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity

Your bio says you write about humans in the tech age. Why that focus?
I live in the country’s tech capital, but I’m not the reporter who obsesses over gadgets or corporate brinkmanship. I am drawn to the philosophical questions embedded in tech and how tech has put humans in all sorts of weird situations, like driving strangers in their own car for a job; or believing a wild rumor on social-media and taking startling action; or surveilling the person stealing their Amazon boxes off their porch and reporting it on Nextdoor. I really enjoy the luxury of deep interviewing, when you can spend gobs of time understanding someone’s world in hopes of transmitting that to the page. It’s the human messiness that brings me to the game. My great ambition is that the life of the person I write about feels as real and complex as my life does to me.

How did you learn to write narrative nonfiction?
From my days at my high school newspaper and reporting for the University of Iowa college paper, I was always drawn to features, but it took me a while to realize you could apply feature-writing methods to serious material. In college, I started devouring the “Best American Magazine Writing” books compiled by ASME. I re-read Anne Hull’s “Divided Feast” 20 times, amazed that she’d unearthed weighty class observations by embedding in a supermarket. Michael Paterniti’s “The Most Dangerous Beauty” made me tearful in admiration as I realized that writing could actually elevate the reporting to a boiling point that it shape-shifts into art.

Throughout college, I honed my skills at feature internships, capped by a summer on the Dallas Morning News features desk, a wonderfully writerly culture circa 2005. (Chip, you should know that my editor, Michael Merschel, had me complete your questionnaire to figure out what a story was really about — an exercise that I still do).  The News sent me to the very first Mayborn conference. Listening to nonfiction writers talk about their process all weekend crystallized that I’d found my people and my place.

Before I showed up for my first reporting job at a San Francisco alt-weekly, the editor told me to read Jon Franklin’s “Writing for Story.” I’ve carried its lessons with me: how to pick a good tale; how to nod at the piece’s themes via word choices; how to implicitly ask a question in the lede that the piece seeks to answer. I then sprinted through a brutal gantlet of five sink-or-swim years at the alt-weekly, producing a 4,500-word cover feature every five weeks or so. That destroyed any preciousness about the journalistic process. The job acted as my grad school, teaching me how to get records, work with sources, pace a longform feature. The way I can still blaze through a first draft is a callback to that era, though thankfully I usually no longer have to churn them out in a terrifying weekend while chugging Red Bull.

Nina Martin, who edited several of my magazine pieces once I went freelance, also imparted the wisdom that you can write about complex people in equally complex situations with both empathy and fairness; those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I find that framing useful for the stories I’m doing these days.

The learning continues, of course. And the crazy thing about journalism is all your heroes put their work for you to study right there, on the page!

Could you describe your writing process?
One of the most amusing writing scenes I’ve ever watched was in a documentary on the Los Angeles food writer extraordinaire, Jonathan Gold. He opens his laptop, types an entire column with dazzling prose, speaking the words in a voice-over as they hit the page, jaunty music playing, then closes his laptop with a satisfied look and walks out. A perfectly linear and publish-ready first draft!

I wish!

Here’s my way-less-entertaining montage: From all those outlines, I sketch out a short outline, keeping it to a page or two, to map and distill the sections. Then, blast-off! I type out a rough draft as quickly as possible, even when it means the roughest sentences you can imagine. That big messy document frees me of the fear of not having words on the page. There’s no reason to get overly wedded to sentences or a particular transition until you see how the whole story lays out.

Then I copy-paste that beast into a new doc and start refining.  Drafting is the loneliest time; no one can write that first draft but you. Only after many rounds of refining – each one copy-pasted into a new doc so I know the old one is always there like an old friend should I need it – do I start getting to that point of lift, when the sentences start to bounce off the page a bit. I try to get it there before I send it to my editor.

 At one stage, I try to read my draft aloud — that age-old advice. Clunky phrasings and redundant words leap out; I often shamefully realize I’ve written the same word three times in the same sentence. Also, I do a search-replace for common words in the piece, subbing in synonyms or tweaking the sentence to not even go there. Tighter, more interesting writing always emerges. (I just did that on this very document and deleted 25 uses of “story,” case in point!)

At the bitter end, I get really nit-picky about flow; each sentence should be easy for the eye and mind to sail through, right into the next one. My editors are really good at this verbal Zamboni-driving, too. No way any reader is ever going to give you 45 minutes of their time if reading feels like a chore.

Are there any writers, stories or books that inspire you as you worked on this or other stories? Sometimes I will read a great piece of journalism once I’m into the draft refining process, and it helps jolt me into trying to match that level of mastery. But I also try to apply the adage, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Published stories have already been through the whole editorial ringer. Be inspired but realistic that your early drafts will not match the sparkle of someone else’s final product.

I was interested in The New Yorker’s feature on accidental killers. I was interested in how my mentor Elizabeth Weil wrote about a defendant at the center of another fatal tragedy, and in Matthew Power’s profile of a drone operator, which had haunted me for years.

What role do your editors play in your work?
I like talking through reporting decisions with my editor, and Wired’s executive editor Maria Streshinsky was a generous coach and sounding board over the long reporting road. She also ensured that we were keeping the pedestrian victim top of mind. Later in the revision process, when we were feeling a bit stumped by the structure in the muddled middle, Wired’s feature editor John Gravois had the insight of flipping the order of a few of the sections. Everything started flowing better from that point. Once I file a first draft, the editors copilot every editorial decision until the magazine closes.

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Smiley’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HID ANNOTATIONS button in the right menu of your mobile device.

A screen grab from a video of a camera mounted in a self-driving Uber just before it hits a bicyclist.

A screen grab from a video shows an interior view moments before an Uber SUV hit a woman in Tempe, Ariz., on March 18, 2018.

‘I’m the Operator’: The Aftermath of a Self-Driving Tragedy

In 2018, an Uber autonomous vehicle fatally struck a pedestrian. In a WIRED exclusive, the human behind the wheel finally speaks

By Lauren Smiley

March 8, 2022

RAFAELA VASQUEZ LIKED to work nights, alone, buffered from a world she had her reasons to distrust. This a powerful example of foreshadowing. Why did you include it in the first sentence of the story? The headline and lead photo indicate that this piece is about the person you’ve never heard from in this highly publicized crash, but I also wanted to telegraph right away that we’re going to hear Vasquez’s perspective. Of course, this story is concretely about Vasquez getting charged with a crime. But in the feature-writing mental exercise of “What is this really, really about?” for Vasquez’s personal story, I landed on a theme of seeking acceptance but the reality of being cast out by society throughout her life. I’m surfacing that theme right away in the first sentence. I also want to foreshadow right now that this isn’t going to be just another night on the job.

One Sunday night in March 2018, Uber assigned her the Scottsdale loop. She drove a gray Volvo SUV, rigged up with cameras and lidar sensors through the company’s garage, past the rows of identical cars, past a poster depicting a driver staring down at a cell phone that warned, “It Can Wait.” I’m not familiar with lidar sensors. Did you consider stopping to describe them? The lede’s goal is scene-setting and drawing the reader into this tense progression of events. It’s about the image in the reader’s mind of the futuristic car, not technical details. As long as the reader hears “fancy tech car,” I’m content. The clock ticked past 9:15, and Vasquez reached the route’s entry point. She flipped the Volvo into autonomous mode, and the car navigated itself through a blur of suburban Arizona, past auto dealers and Zorba’s Adult Shop and the check-cashing place and McDonald’s. Then it jagged a short stint through Tempe to start the circuit again. It was a route Vasquez had cruised in autonomy some 70 times before.

As she was finishing her second loop, the Volvo blazed across a bridge strung with bistro lights above Tempe Town Lake. “Blazed” is the first of many vivid verbs that stud the story. How do you arrive at them — during drafting or revision or during the reporting? Strong verbs make lively writing, but we have to pick an accurate and fair one. She’s not driving the car — it’s driving itself — and we know from records that the car was traveling at about 40 mph on a pretty open stretch of road. So I selected “blazed” in my first draft.  Neon signs on glass office buildings were reflected in the water, displaying the area’s tech hub ambitions—Zenefits, Norton LifeLock, Silicon Valley Bank. How were you able to name the office buildings, and why do you do so? A sense of place is an important part of strong narratives so, while in Tempe reporting, I walked around the crash area, taking photos and videos to remind myself of what I saw when I got back to my desk. I later checked that those companies were there at the time. By selecting these details about tech companies, I’m foreshadowing that Arizona’s emergence as a tech hub is relevant to what is happening. Vasquez is surrounded by evidence of that ambition and the Uber test program she’s part of is also part of that ambition.  Beyond the bridge, the car navigated a soft bend into the shadows under a freeway overpass. At 9:58 pm, it glided to a forlorn stretch of road between a landscaped median and a patch of desert scruff. Four signs in the median warned people not to jaywalk there, directing them to a crosswalk 380 feet away.

The Uber driving system—which had been in full control of the car for 19 minutes at that point—registered a vehicle ahead that was 5.6 seconds away, but it delivered no alert to Vasquez. Then the computer nixed its initial assessment; it didn’t know what the object was. Then it switched the classification back to a vehicle, then waffled between vehicle and “other.” Again you use a descriptive and not typical verb: “waffle.” My first draft said “vacillated.” I tweaked to “waffle” in a revision. Don’t use the ten-cent word if the two-cent one is more effective. The machine is changing its assessment, so “waffle” was the right choice. At 2.6 seconds from the object, the system identified it as “bicycle.” At 1.5 seconds, it switched back to considering it “other.” Then back to “bicycle” again. The system generated a plan to try to steer around whatever it was, but decided it couldn’t. Then, at 0.2 seconds to impact, the car let out a sound to alert Vasquez that the vehicle was going to slow down. At two-hundredths of a second before impact, traveling at 39 mph, Vasquez grabbed the steering wheel, which wrested the car out of autonomy and into manual mode. It was too late. The smashed bike scraped a 25-foot wake on the pavement. A person lay crumpled in the road. How were you able to drill down to reconstruct such a scene down to the hundredths of a second? The NTSB public report with all its supporting documents on this crash was an incredible resource. Uber had turned over detailed information to the authorities on what identity the car was assigning the pedestrian in the road, broken down to fractions of a second. While corporate Uber was pretty tightlipped with me, the NTSB report allowed us to be precise throughout.

Vasquez did what Uber had taught its employees in the test program to do in case of emergencies: She pulled the vehicle over and called 911. “A bicyclist, um, I, um, hit a bicyclist that was in the road,” she told the dispatcher, her voice tense. “They shot out in the street … They are injured, they need help, paramedics.”

“I know it’s pretty scary,” the dispatcher said in soothing tones.

She told Vasquez to breathe.

Within six minutes of the crash, cops started to arrive. Paramedics too. One cop scanned a flashlight over the person on the ground. A paramedic kneeled down and pumped the victim’s chest. How do you know what the cop and paramedic did when they arrived at the scene? I received hours of police body cam footage in a public records request, which showed these early moments at the crash site. Much of this was backed up in the police report as well, confirming the identities of who at the scene was doing what.

Dashcam footage from Rafaela Vasquez’s self-driving Uber, pulling out of the garage on the night of the crash.

A couple of minutes later, an officer walked up to the Volvo, where Vasquez sat behind the wheel. He asked if she was OK. “Yeah, I’m just shaken up,” Vasquez said. “Is the person OK? Are they badly hurt?” Back by the figure who lay on the ground, a woman began wailing. Vasquez asked the officer, “Is that the person screaming?” He answered: “No no, that’s probably some people that they know.”

For the next two hours, Vasquez waited, doing what the police asked. Uber reps arrived. In the early minutes after the crash, one jogged up to Vasquez’s car, and an officer asked him to let the cops talk to her first. Eventually Vasquez moved to sit in a supervisor’s car. She asked for updates about the victim. And she learned that the person with the bicycle had died. How did she learn this? Why did you choose to summarize rather than present it as a scene? The body cam footage shows Vasquez telling a police officer at one point at the crash scene that she’d been told that the victim had passed away. I didn’t have footage of that moment of Vasquez finding out, or any information about who exactly it was who told her, so I stuck to what I knew.

After midnight, Officer Kyle Loehr approached Vasquez and asked if she was the driver in the crash. “I’m the operator,” she said. He asked her to get out of the car, and, body camera running, explained that he was going to run her through some sobriety tests: “This protects you, protects the city, protects the company,” he said. “It’s just literally a box we need to check.” Vasquez tracked Loehr’s green flashlight with her eyes, then his finger, then looked up to the sky and told him when she thought 30 seconds had passed. Sober. Why use a one-word sentence fragment here? Let’s change up the pace. It’s sharper than saying “The officer decided she was sober.” Fewer words are usually stronger.  About 10 minutes later, Loehr came back with more questions. His voice was congenial and chipper. “I’m trying to just lighten the mood a little bit,” he said at one point, “because I know it’s stressful, and it’s crappy.” He told her he had to read her Miranda rights to her. That’s what happens, he added, when someone is no longer allowed to leave a scene. Gently, he went on: “Let me walk you through what happens with any of these cases when there’s a fatality.”

“Oh God,” Vasquez whispered. “That word.” Were these and other exchanges between Vasquez and Officer Loehr drawn from your transcription of the body camera footage? Yes, this was from the body cam footage, which I believe was part of the full police report that I requested through the Tempe police department.

Multiple blunt-force injuries. That’s what the medical examiner would put down as Elaine Herzberg’s cause of death. Manner of death: accident. Herzberg had lived in Arizona her whole life and had resorted to camping in the streets near Tempe. The 49-year-old often carried a radio playing the local rock station; she collected frog mementos and colored to relax. She had struggled with addiction. That March night, she became the first pedestrian killed by a self-driving car. How did you verify this fact? This feature was published four years after the fatality, which was widely reported as the first of its kind in the young self-driving industry, so we (me, the editors, the fact checkers) were comfortable with stating this plainly without a qualifier word of the “first-known,” or some such. Why did you choose this scene to open the story? My first draft also started at the crash scene but a different entry point, a moment after the crash, and then talked a bit more about Vasquez in the second graf. My editor Maria Streshinsky urged me to stay in chronology— to start with the lead up to the crash while sticking close to Vasquez’s perspective. It’s more elegant for the scene to spool out chronologically, less jostling for the reader.

Herzberg’s death is the kind of tragedy the autonomous driving industry claims it can prevent. In the US, car accidents kill more than 38,000 people a year, more than 90 percent of them at least in part due to human error. By taking sleepiness, inattention, drunkenness, and rage out of the equation and replacing them with vigilant, precise technology, self-driving cars promise to make the roads dramatically safer. But to reach that purported future, we must first weather the era we’re in now: when tech is a student driver. Terrific analogy. When did you come up with it? My editor John Gravois came up with the student-driver concept in our many iterations of the nut graf, which is one of the very last parts of the story that locked into place. I was deep in the frenzied march to publication, and sometimes it takes an editor who still has that big-picture view to surgically cut through the haze with the perfect phrase.  That means gangly fleets of sensor-bedecked cars sucking in data on millions of miles of public roads, learning to react to our flawed and improvisational ways. And inevitably, as experts have always warned, that means crashes.

Questions of fault when things go wrong have been settled over a century for human driving. But they are still largely the stuff of thought experiments for the cyborgs now roving our streets: vehicles controlled by a machine brain, programmed by human engineers, and usually overseen on the road by some other person behind the wheel. This is an ideal example of the power of three. I didn’t consciously think about the power of three! I wanted to get the unsettled question of fault in a self-driving crash high up, which was the philosophical dilemma that drew me to this subject. Also to explain that this isn’t really a matter of man vs. machine; the machine is doing what humans programmed it to do, and those corporate and engineering decisions are also going to be a big issue.   For years, researchers and self-driving advocates had anxiously prognosticated about how the public and the legal system would react to the first pedestrian death caused by a self-driving car. How do you decide when to insert a hot link in your narrative? The edit team decides what links to add, and they space them out throughout the piece with the hope of adding context and backup for certain facts and at certain moments.

The crash in Tempe ripped those musings into reality—forcing police, prosecutors, Uber, and Vasquez into roles both unwanted and unprecedented in a matter of seconds. At the scene that night, Vasquez stood at the center of a tragedy and a conundrum. She couldn’t yet fathom the part she was about to play in sorting out where the duties of companies and states and engineers end, and the mandate of the person inside the car begins. Do you consider the previous three grafs what you consider the nut graf of this story? Yes! Why did you decide to step back from the narrative of the crash to put it in context here? I first learned in Franklin’s “Writing for Story” that the lede asks a question, either literally or implied, that then pushes the reader to keep going in order to find the answer. So this nut graf is widening out the stakes, showing those bigger questions for us as a society, as well as the specific question of what will happen to Vasquez. Were those passages a challenge to write? A strange phenomenon is how when I go back and read a published piece, the sentences and structure have the air of inevitability, when, in truth, these decisions were only arrived at through an arduous creative process. We really labored on the nut graf for this complicated, multifaceted story, a story that still has no conclusion, since this criminal case is still pending. The exact language only locked into focus in late revisions.

“I’m sick over what happened,” Vasquez confided to the police as her mind spun in the hours after the crash. She said she felt awful for the victim’s family. She also grieved the event in a different way—as a loyal foot soldier of the self-driving revolution. “Oh God, this is going to be a setback for the whole industry,” Vasquez told Loehr. “Which is not what I want.”

At the time, Vasquez was an Uber defender. She had come a long way to this job. Over the previous few years, she’d acquired a dizzying track record of doing hidden work for highly visible companies—moderating grisly posts on Facebook, she says; tweeting about Dancing With the Stars from ABC’s Twitter; policing social media for Wingstop and Walmart. But her position with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group had offered new stability, and after years of turmoil as a transgender woman navigating a hostile society, she was careful not to jeopardize it. Did you intend for this sentence fulfill the promise of the lede’s foreshadowing? We’re giving a bit more detail about the “distrust” we were talking about in the first sentence, parsing out enough information to start to feel we’re getting to know Vasquez. But even this is still summarizing and foreshadowing: we’re going to get more into the detail later.  Vasquez had even removed the box braids of colorful yarn that had defined her look since she was young. At a new job, she had come to think, “the less attention I bring to myself, the better.” During her nine months of work as an operator, the viselike grip of everything she’d endured as a child and teen and adult had slackened just a bit. As she trudged into her forties, Vasquez had felt her life, finally, relaxing into a kind of equilibrium. How do you know this? Vasquez said this in our interview.

Now, as she and Loehr sat in a victim services van near the Tempe bridge after midnight, grappling with Herzberg’s death, the vise was tightening again. She found herself asking, “Do I need a lawyer?” How did you get on to this story in the first place? There was this widely viewed video in the seconds leading to the crash, so many people had seen Rafaela Vasquez’s anguished face in that moment. But she hadn’t given any interviews, so little was really known about her. With some Googling, I was able to find out that Vasquez had worked tech-related jobs for years, in tech support and customer service. At one point she had even been featured on a blog as an avid beta tester, talking about how she loved tech. It’s always a good sign when an idea gets more interesting as you learn more. I was also intrigued, philosophically and legally, in the question of fault when both humans and self-driving tech (itself designed by people, don’t forget) play a role in a car crash. The fact that only one person was being held criminally responsible, and yet the terrain here was so complex, also seemed ripe for further digging. Did you have a goal when you set out and worked on the piece? I wanted people to understand Vasquez, and what she was at the center of — that this crash isn’t just about her. I also wanted to tie together the many complicated threads swirling around this tragedy in a readable way and unearth public records that might add to the public knowledge of this case.

ARIZONA WELCOMED UBER’S self-driving program to Tempe with feisty, high-profile panache, after a long courtship. Business-­boosting governor Doug Ducey, the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, took office in 2015, promising to yank the state out of its post-­recession doldrums. He wanted to lure Silicon Valley companies over the Arizona border, pitching his state as the anti-California with trollish flamboyance. He axed restrictions on Theranos blood testing, welcomed an Apple data center, ended local bans on Airbnb, and pressured officials to let Ubers and Lyfts roll up to Phoenix’s largest airport. Once again you back off the narrative to present context. How did you arrive at the story’s architecture? It would have been valid for this section to continue with the early hours and days of the investigation to keep the plot rolling. I sometimes think some longform stories cut to background a bit too early before the reader has gotten totally invested. But in this story, I wanted to start showing the greater landscape this crash happened upon early, so we cut back in time here and then start working our way back to the crash chronologically.

Along the way, Ducey’s office and Uber entered a mutual embrace. At one point, a Ducey staffer emailed Uber and referred to a 2015 Arizona law that regulated ride-sharing as “your bill.” At times, Uber suggested tweets for the governor’s office account and talking points for press events. How were you able to describe Ducey’s courtship of Uber in such detail? I did a public records request for the emails. I try to always brainstorm what public records exist about my story topic, even on pure features. Records have brought me so many incredible details over the years, things I wouldn’t have learned by other means.  In June 2015, Uber opened a customer service center and pledged to hire 300 Arizonans. And in August, Ducey signed an exuberant executive order allowing companies to test self-driving vehicles on public roads.

All of that was good for Uber. At the time, its CEO, Travis Kalanick, saw the development of robotaxis as an existential battle, particularly with Google. The company had to at least tie for first place in the autonomy race, or else, he said in an interview, “Uber is no longer a thing.” Why did you rely on Business Insider for this quote? They did the seminal interview with Kalanick at that critical juncture, in which he stated this existential fear. Self-driving car companies were making a lot of claims in the press in those days, adding to the fervor. Human drivers could never compete on cost. But by the beginning of 2015, Kalanick’s company was way behind. So Uber poached 40 experts from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics department to create something called the Uber Advanced Technologies Group and tasked it with turning the company into a self-driving force. Uber shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars into the self-driving unit, which would, over the next three years, grow to more than 1,000 employees across five cities. Your story is written with compelling authority. Some of what you present, such as most of the opening scene, is not attributed or the attribution is delayed. Why did you choose this narrative approach, rather than including information about your reporting or sources, either in the story or a footnote or sidebar, as some narratives packages do? And how did you decide what to attribute directly? Wired has an extensive fact-checking process. I annotate nearly every factual assertion with its source, which the fact-checker is then going to vet. For a piece this size, the process takes weeks. That rigor, the promise that the words here have been fully scrutinized, is part of the magazine’s covenant with the reader. We tend to sprinkle attributions in gingerly. Still, I’m a fan of the sidebar approach that many publications are doing these days on “how we got this story,” instead of gumming up the reading experience with tons of attribution.

In 2016, with Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise already piloting prototype self-driving cars around the Phoenix area, Ducey spotted yet another way to remake his state as the nation’s self-driving test capital. That December, California revoked the registrations on Uber’s test cars after the company refused to get a testing permit. Within hours Ducey tweeted, “California may not want you; but AZ does!” The next day, Uber’s Volvos were loaded onto semitrailers bound for Arizona. At the time, federal regulators were standing back, suggesting that companies voluntarily report their safety practices, and recommending states do the same.

In a secretive industry, miles driven in autonomous mode were a key signal of a program’s vitality. So throughout 2017, as Arizona became the largest site for Uber’s testing, employees recall company leaders demanding that the operators “crush miles”—hundreds of thousands, then millions, of them. “These were pretty purposely outrageous goals,” says Jonathan Barentine, a former employee who trained the human backup operators. “We were trying to ramp up really quickly, which at the time was what Uber was good at—or able to do.” How did you find Barentine, who proves to be such an important source, and get him to talk to you on the record? I’m not a beat reporter with a long list of existing sources, so I cold-contacted dozens of former Uber ATG employees, finding most of them on LinkedIn.  By late 2017, Uber boasted that it was racking up 84,000 miles a week.

Soon Uber was running 40 cars across thousands of Arizona miles on up to eight shifts a day, with human pilots rescuing the fledgling robots when they went awry, and regulators barely watching. When Arizona welcomed Uber’s audacious program, Bryant Walker Smith, a leading scholar of self-driving policy, told the San Jose Mercury News that Ducey would symbolically “own” the company’s self-driving future—whether that be success or a high-profile crash. In California, Smith had recommended to the state’s officials that they revoke Uber’s registration; as for  Arizona’s quick embrace of the same program, he warned, “There are risks to that level of permissiveness.” Would you describe the research that undergirds your story? Extensive consumption of past news coverage, gathering court records and police reports, poring over the NTSB report on this crash, filing public records requests (both to learn new information and corroborate facts I got elsewhere), interviews with ex-Uber employees and self-driving experts and reaching out to many others close to this case who declined comment. In a long reporting process like this one, where your knowledge builds so much over time, I find it important to re-read documents at different junctures; there’s always some detail that will take on new meaning as you learn more. How long did it take to complete the research, reporting, drafting and revision? Once the attorneys agreed, it was time to start on the vast amount of research it was going to take to put an interview into context.  I sent out a bevy of records requests and pestered many of those agencies throughout 2021 to fulfill them.  I also read everything I could find about the crash and Uber’s testing program. I’m copy-pasting everything that seems important into a timeline — the primary tool I use on nearly every story, especially ones about criminal cases, where chronology is especially important. Even if all those events don’t make the cut, I need that backbone to know the contours; I need it when outlining and writing and later annotating the piece for the fact-checker. (I always include the original source for each entry so I can find it again.) I spoke with Vasquez in August 2021, and I started writing that fall while continuing to report, including cold-contacting dozens of former Uber employees. The editors spent time with the drafts, giving me the ability to step away from the piece and return with a little bit of distance from my words. Then I plunged in again that fall and winter. The piece published in March 2022 — so about a year and a half after I first learned I’d be able to speak with Vasquez.

OVER THE COURSE of 2017, the Advanced Technologies Group brought on hundreds of test operators in Arizona. You weave multiple timelines: the crash, Vasquez’s life before and after her Uber career, the rise and fall of the self-driving industry, among others. How did you keep track of them? My master timeline was crucial — and was color-coded by what storyline each nugget pertained to.  Jonathan Barentine, a friendly and precocious program manager who was just a few years out of studying liberal arts at Cornell, was posted in Tempe to oversee training for the new recruits. He remembers that Vasquez, hired that summer, took the training so seriously she appeared stressed. “It seemed like a bit of a big break for her,” he says. “She really cared about making sure that she could do her job.”

For many of the new operators, coming off work on cleaning crews or as delivery drivers or regular Uber drivers, walking into the Advanced Technologies Group’s Tempe headquarters was like entering a Silicon Valley Shangri-la. The facility came with an alluring nickname—Ghost Town—from its days when few employees reported to the sprawling office-park building. The name had stuck even as exploding ranks of workers dropped in for car assignments, free catered meals, and a break room packed with Red Bull and snacks. The operators earned full benefits and about $20 to $24 an hour—solidly middle-class wages in the area. Vasquez’s coworkers were buying houses and booking vacations. Workers marveled at the latitude and trust of the company’s culture: Everyone gave feedback at regular debriefs, and managers let workers take breaks as needed to stay sharp on the road. Some stayed after hours to play video games. What was the reporting you did that made it possible to describe Ghost Town’s culture with such specificity? Other staffers I reached out to filled me in with precise details about their jobs and workplace. Remember that not every source has to tell you every detail: I didn’t need to learn what Ghost Town looked like from Vasquez when there were hundreds of other people who worked there.  And they worked at the vanguard of tech. Flavio Beltran, an operator in the Tempe program, says, “I felt like, wow, I’m a part of history. I felt a very huge sense of pride.” How did you find Beltran? Beltran was one of the few who had appeared in some news reports about this crash. ContactOut is a web extension that will surface emails from LinkedIn.

Vasquez, for her part, was fairly subdued. She says the mix of solitary work with a few interactions suited her. While she started to count a couple of colleagues as friends, she primarily seemed engaged with the work. A supervisor says Vasquez would walk up to her manager’s desk to report a new tidbit about the cars or make suggestions. She got a bonus for her performance in late 2017.

In the first months of testing on the roads, two people would work together in the car. Ideally, the person in the left seat—the driver’s side—called out things like obstacles and traffic signs: Do we see the bicyclist ahead? The pedestrian on the left? This stop sign? The person in the right seat would confirm on a laptop whether the system detected it: Check. Check. Check. If there was a hiccup, the person in the driver’s seat could take control of the car. The other person would write up the issue for the company to review.

In the fall of 2017, just a few months after Kalanick was ousted as CEO, Uber announced that it was changing the plan. Now there’d be just one operator in each car. Some heard this was because the tech was getting better. But with the self-driving unit chewing through hundreds of millions of dollars a year, others at the Advanced Technologies Group heard Uber wanted to stretch labor costs across more miles. (Uber says cost was not a factor in its decision.) How did you get the company’s point of view? I contacted former Uber executives, none of whom got back to me. So we approached Uber with a list of factchecking questions to respond to.

Barentine lurched to retrain the workers to manage the cars alone. Typically, he says, a solo driver would be used only to test more mature versions of the software, in part to minimize the number of times the human had to take over from the vehicle. Now feedback on the vehicle’s performance en route was to be entered via some buttons on a tablet mounted on the dashboard. A few operators told me they had to get used to handling the car alone, for hours, with no conversation mate to spice up the repetitive loops. Why did you introduce yourself into the narrative here? It was the simplest way to say that we got this information from interviews. The attribution question in an ongoing balancing act.  Combined with the sheer number of miles they were racking up, the change also worried Barentine. “All my colleagues in learning development were very uneasy,” he says.

Without a second set of eyes in the car for long stretches in autonomous mode, the workers also found it harder to resist the forbidden lure of using their phones.

On the very first day that he was in the car alone, Adam Caplinger, an operator in Pittsburgh, where Uber was also testing self-driving vehicles, snapped a photo at a red light. He self-­reported the transgression. Managers later showed him video from the car’s dashcam. As the car kept driving, he’d continued typing on his phone, a moment that Caplinger hadn’t even remembered. “I felt sick in my stomach,” he says. “My eyes did go to my phone a lot more than I realized.” Management told him they had to set an example and fired him. Another great source. How did you track him down in Pittsburgh? Same thing: LinkedIn and a cold email. I had no idea Caplinger had this very relevant experience when I contacted him. This is the benefit of casting a large net. I talked to anyone who would reply.

Even the guy who designed that “It Can Wait” poster—the one that hung around Ghost Town reminding operators not to pick up their phones—ran afoul of the rule. In early 2018, after he’d logged thousands of autonomous miles, Flavio Beltran spotted a plane’s contrail—and snapped a photo, just as an operator in another car passed, looking at him. “I was like, ‘Aw man, fuck,’” Beltran says. Increasingly, mainstream publications, such as The New York Times, are printing profanities more frequently than in the past. What is Wired’s style? Wired is fine with swear words within reason, and if they aren’t frivolous. Here, the swearing is human and relatable; it gets across the emotion and the important fact that other operators were making distracted mistakes on the road after the company took out the second driver.

Management urged operators to report coworkers who broke the rules. (“Ninety-nine percent of the team wanted the program to continue and were trying to preserve it,” a supervisor says.) Why didn’t you name this person or say why you didn’t? He requested anonymity, as did many staffers because of the company’s nondisclosure agreements, and staffers’ need to preserve their careers. So again, with the editors, I talked through the balancing act of how much we need to pierce the fourth wall and explain our decisions to readers for what’s a quick quote here.  Tempe managers also did occasional retroactive spot checks, pulling the dashcam footage of randomly selected vehicles. But with busy schedules and the dramatic ramp-up of miles, the checks were infrequent. You present an insider’s view of Uber’s self-driving policies. How did you gain this knowledge? Information about the infrequency of spot checks was in the NTSB report, and ex-staffers also told me this in interviews.  (Also, Barentine says, it seemed like Tempe management’s regular checks, ride-alongs, and improvement plans for low performers fell away.) Vasquez’s supervisor later told investigators that he never reviewed videos of her on the job. Where did you locate the statement of Vasquez’s supervisor? The NTSB interviewed her supervisor and printed in their report. The report was extensive and a valuable reporting tool.  The company didn’t check drivers in real time either, another supervisor says: “We didn’t want the operators thinking that we were just spying on them while they are trying to work.” Mostly, he added, they trusted the operators to police themselves.

But whoever does the policing, whether a supervisor or an operator, faces a Sisyphean battle against a well-documented phenomenon: something called automation complacency. When you automate any part of a task, the human overseer starts to trust that the machine has it handled and stops paying attention. Numerous industries have struggled to find ways to keep workers attentive in the face of this fact. In 2013, Google started its own self-driving pilot program, using employees to test cars on their commute. Told to watch the road and be ready to take over in case of emergency, the Googlers instead typed on their phones, curled their eyelashes, and slept while hurtling down the highway. Google ended the experiment in a matter of weeks, deciding that it must take humans completely out of the loop—only full automation would do. More recently, Tesla drivers using their vehicle’s Auto­pilot feature have been spotted sleeping while riding on highways and have been involved in a number of fatal crashes, including one in which a California driver had a strategy game active on his phone. Horrifying stuff. How were you able to document these instances automation complacency? Google has spoken about this failed experiment publicly. Tesla’s crashes have been widely reported and scrutinized and videos of Tesla drivers sleeping are all over social media and have gotten a lot of press attention.

“It finally happened,” a coworker texted grimly. “We finally killed someone.”

At Uber, operators say that staying focused on the job was easier in the early, “wild bronco” days, as one Pittsburgh worker put it, when the cars’ antics were frequent and dramatic. But with only one person in the car, and the machines getting better at navigating, it was easier to zone out. Between April 2017 and February 2018, according to records Uber later gave investigators, the company caught 18 operators breaking the phone policy. Uber gave nine of them additional training and fired the other nine, including Beltran. How did you obtain these records? The NTSB report was such a help; Uber cooperated with the investigation and so this information was included in the report, which was a reporting trove.

“I understood why. That was our one major rule,” Beltran says. “I was devastated. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.” But both he and Caplinger told me their slipups were in part due to company policy: They would never have shot the darn pictures, they say, had a second person still been in the car.

On March 13, 2018—five days before the crash—Robbie Miller, an operations manager at Uber’s self-driving-truck division, sent an email to company executives and lawyers. In the message, later published by The Information, Miller complained that some drivers in the car division seemed poorly trained, damaging cars nearly every other day in February. He urged the company to put a second operator back in each car. He also wrote that cutting the fleet size dramatically “would significantly reduce ATG’s likelihood of being involved in an accident.”

Five days after Miller hit send, Vasquez pulled out of the Ghost Town garage to travel the Scotts­dale loop for her 72nd and 73rd—and final—time.

In her 39 minutes on the road that night, the car asked her to take over just once, for a few seconds.

One former Uber employee from Pittsburgh—who worked as a triage analyst, looking over incidents operators had flagged on the road—says he was baffled by the sheer number of loops the company racked up in its “crush miles” era. When the crash happened, he says, a friend from work grimly texted him. He recalls it reading, “It finally happened. We finally killed someone.” Why didn’t you identify the employee by name? The source requested anonymity, and we knew that was the only way to have this piece of information considering the company’s nondisclosure requirements, so we agreed to it.

“I CAN’T GIVE legal advice,” Officer Loehr told Vasquez, sitting in the victim services van after she asked whether she might need a lawyer. Authorities would reconstruct the crash, he explained, and that would determine if Vasquez had been at all negligent. “There’s a hypothetical possibility that it could go criminal,” he told her. “I don’t foresee it going that way.”

Even after Vasquez had listened to Loehr clip through her Miranda rights, heard him say that anything she said could be used against her in court, she kept talking: about her job and how the car had been working fine, about how she only saw Herzberg “right at impact.” She spoke as if she was comforted that someone was being kind and wanted to listen. He urged her to call a crisis response number for mental health services. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. What you went through is the definition of trauma.” As he wrapped up the interview, Loehr said, “You should breathe. You’re OK. Collisions happen.” You segue nicely into this scene in the van. Was it taken from body camera footage as well? The chronology, which left the crash scene after the lede section and went back in time, has now made its way back to the crash. So now we’re plunging into post-crash events. These quotes and scene details are from the officer’s body cam. Nothing helps more than video in reconstructing a scene.

But the Tempe cops knew this wasn’t just another collision. And so did Uber: Immediately after the accident, the company grounded its self-driving car fleet across all its testing sites.

“You know as well as I know, this is going to be an international story,” an officer told a huddle of Uber reps at the scene. The police body cams were running, he said, and everything would be done “out in the open.” The car and all its recordings were now evidence; any attempt to alter them, he warned, would be a crime. On a more collegial note, the officer added that he needed Uber to be a partner in sleuthing. “We’re going to be working together throughout this whole process from now, probably for months.”

In the early morning hours, Vasquez retreated to Uber headquarters to calm down, and eventually drove home. The Volvo was towed to a police facility, and the cops nabbed warrants for the car’s data. Before dawn, they had taken custody of the SanDisk memory card from the camera mounted below the rearview mirror—the one that recorded both the car’s human pilot and a view of the road ahead. Why was it important to use the brand of the memory card? This adds a nice bit of verisimilitude to the scene and a more specific mental image for readers. Wired has a pretty tech savvy audience, so we knew it would conjure a clear image for many.

Uber employees helped the cops find the right footage, which would go on to play a key role in the investigation: video of Vasquez in the driver’s seat as the car navigated the route; then of Vasquez gazing down toward her right knee, toward the lower console. Her glances downward averaged 2.56 seconds, but on one early loop, on the same stretch of road where the crash would take place, she looked down for more than 26 seconds. At times, the investigators thought she seemed to smirk. How do you know this? The duration of her gazes and her facial expressions were in the police and NTSB reports.   In the seconds before the car hit Herzberg, Vasquez looked down for about five seconds. Just before impact, she looked up, and gasped.

The media descended on the story the next day. Right away, experts were quoted lambasting Arizona’s lax regulatory environment, calling for a national moratorium on testing, and saying that fatalities are inevitable when developing such a technology.

Initially, Vasquez says, she was reassured by the police’s public stance. Tempe’s then police chief, Sylvia Moir, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.” Uber, she said, “would likely not be at fault,” though she wouldn’t rule out charges for the human pilot.

After that interview, Moir told me, emails that pulsed with “excruciating rage” deluged her inbox, accusing Moir of complicity in Tempe’s self-driving experiments and of blaming Herzberg for her own death. Another great verb choice, active and vivid. The verb fits the information at hand; you associate “pulsing” with adrenaline, with vitriol, with emotion. People were angry and wanted accountability. As the hours ticked by, reporters started digging up as many details as they could about Vasquez—including information about an 18-year-old felony for which she had served just under four years in prison.

By the end of the day, a search warrant had been issued for any cell phone Vasquez had with her in the Volvo “to determine if Rafaela was distracted.” Maybe that would show what she was so interested in down by her knee. The warrant also listed the crime now under investigation: vehicular manslaughter.

TWO NIGHTS AFTER the crash, a trio of police gathered outside room 227 at a Motel 6 in Tucson. Vasquez had checked in because, she says, reporters were thronging her apartment. The first days had set her reeling. “I knew everything happened; I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I was in shock.” Now as she greeted the cops, she seemed calm but slightly on edge; her attorney didn’t want her answering any questions, she told them. Who provided the description of Vasquez’s demeanor? It’s my description of how Vasquez was acting, based on viewing the body cam footage. I chose “seemed” because I cannot tell you that’s how she felt; only that she appears that way. My fact-checker agreed with this description, too — it’s important to vet your perception with another sounding board, to make sure other reasonable people agree. They were there to bag her phones into evidence. She initially told the officers that she’d only had her work phone with her in the car during the crash, but eventually handed over two LG phones—the one she used for work, with a black case, she explained to them, and her personal one, in a metallic case.

The next morning, the data that police extracted showed no calls made or texts sent in the minutes before the accident. Then, according to police reports, the cops homed in on the apps. Were videos playing at the time of the crash? Here you directly attribute the sources. Why? That fine line again. Given the police, other than the former chief, declined to speak with me about this open case, I wanted to say how we know about the sequence of police actions. I try to do it quickly and minimally.  Search warrants went to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

Maybe cell phone data would show what Vasquez was gazing at down by her knee.

The Tempe police were also weighing whether to make public the Volvo’s dashcam footage of the moments leading up to the crash. The Maricopa County attorney, Bill Montgomery, told them that releasing the video, which was in police custody at that point, could jeopardize their suspect’s right to fair legal proceedings. But Moir says the police were under “considerable” pressure from the public to do so, and they wanted to show there was nothing to hide; so the police tweeted the footage. Suddenly the world could see both Vasquez and Herzberg in the seconds before impact. Joe Guy, one operator in Tempe, gathered with others who’d come into Ghost Town, and they watched the video of Vasquez. “Most of us,” he says, “we went, ‘What the fuck was she looking at?’”

As the investigation ramped up, half a dozen Advanced Technologies Group personnel from other offices arrived in Tempe. At the police garage, cops stood by while the company downloaded the impounded car’s data so it could analyze what the system had done that night.

Three days after the crash, the visiting Uber leadership gathered at Ghost Town with Tempe police and federal investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board—the premier federal investigatory body for crashes. Because the software was proprietary, former NTSB chair Robert Sumwalt explained to me, everyone needed Uber to share its findings.

According to a police report of the meeting, Uber reps explained to the group that the company had overridden Volvo’s built-in automatic braking feature. Uber would later tell investigators this was because it interfered with the company’s own systems. The reps also presented their preliminary findings: While Uber’s own driving system recognized Herzberg, it didn’t do anything to avoid hitting her. That was Vasquez’s job, they said. She hadn’t taken the car out of autonomy until just before the moment of impact.

Vasquez wasn’t there to hear Uber’s assertion, but pretty quickly, she says, her supervisors’ interactions with her went from consoling to unnerving. One day, Vasquez says, she was told not to show up for the company’s movie night. “That’s when I really started getting nervous,” she says. Vasquez had asked her employer to pay for a criminal defense attorney, and Uber had agreed. Now her contact with fellow employees and work friends came to a halt.

Adding to the uncertainty, a week after the accident, Governor Ducey wrote to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi with a newly stern tone: “My top priority is public safety,” he said. He found the dashcam footage “to be disturbing and alarming.” He was, he wrote, suspending Uber’s ability to test its cars in the state. You amassed an impressive mountain of information from your research and reporting. What techniques did you use to boil it down, deciding what to leave in and what to cut? There were several storylines I wanted to follow: The self-driving industry’s race to be first to get a self-driving car on the road; Uber’s fervid part in that race; the regulatory and political story; the investigation by the police and the NTSB; the crash victim, Elaine Herzberg’s story and Vasquez’s story. My master timeline helped me see how it all fit together. I color-coded the entries according to which thread it spoke to, then I filtered that 110-page document into an outline. I think the Uber sources got a separate outline, and Vasquez also got her own outline so I could organize all her quotes thematically and chronologically. The final tweaking on what stays and goes happens in revisions and edits. One key call was a big cut to ensure all the details about Uber were relevant to this case. We weren’t writing a comprehensive report on every last issue at the company, and a lot of that had already been explored. My reporting was strong in the Uber employee experience, especially that of the other test operators, so I leaned into their perspective on their jobs.

TEN DAYS AFTER the accident, Uber agreed to pay out a settlement for Elaine Herz­berg’s husband and her daughter Christine Wood, who says it was in the low millions. Wood too had no home and had been camping near the crash site.

Wood says that Herzberg, who’d served stints in county jail on drug charges, had tried to shield her children from her struggles with controlled substances. “She wasn’t proud of it, and she did what she could to make sure me and my brother stayed away from it,” Wood says. She says she and her mom had often jaywalked where the accident happened, sometimes to charge their phones at an electrical plug in the median. (The city has since filled in the median’s footpaths and added more no-crossing signs to the area.) When she died, Herzberg had methamphetamine in her blood.

Signs near the crash site warn people not to jaywalk, directing them to a crosswalk 380 feet away.

With the settlement money, Wood and Herz­berg’s husband bought a ranch house in Mesa. “It got me off the streets, which is what she would have wanted me to do,” she says. Was it a challenge to persuade Wood to be so open? How do you handle difficult interviews? I approached Wood on social media, and was straightforward that I was writing about this crash and wanted to talk to her about her mother. When talking with sources experiencing grief, I let them set the pace, hear out what they want to say, and circle back to follow-up questions when there’s an opening in the conversation to do so.  Months later, Uber also settled with Herzberg’s parents and son, says Herzberg’s mom, Sharon Daly. “I didn’t want to cash the damn check because it would make it final,” Daly told me over the phone, starting to weep. “And I wanted her to come back.” Why did you interview her by phone? With the pandemic making it harder to travel, I went to Arizona once and in that trip I focused on being as available as possible to talk to Vasquez, thoroughly exploring the area of the crash, and gathering records. When I made contact with Ms. Daly, she was very emotive by phone, and I thought her quotes conveyed her personality and sense of loss.

While Uber stanched its civil liability, investigators kept pushing for new details. By mid-April, Vasquez was sitting for three hours—with her Uber-paid lawyer and Uber’s own attorney—talking to investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. According to the agency’s record of the talk, she told them that, at work that night, she had stowed her personal phone in her purse behind her. Her work phone was on the passenger seat. She said she had been monitoring the Uber tablet that was mounted on the center console, then looked up and saw Herzberg.

Then Tempe police started to receive information from the warrants to the streaming apps. YouTube and Netflix found no activity in the hours around the collision. But in late May, Hulu’s legal team reported that after 9:16 pm, Vasquez’s personal phone began streaming the talent show The Voice. The episode stopped at 9:59. The crash happened at 9:58.

About a month later, the police released hundreds of pages of investigative documents to the press—including the seemingly damning report from Hulu. Why did you use the qualifier “seemingly?” Later, we’re going to learn that Vasquez disputes the meaning of this evidence. Vasquez will eventually present her side in a court filing, that she wasn’t watching Hulu, but listening to it and was instead monitoring Slack. So I want to foreshadow that there will be more to the story.  The police analysis found that, if she’d been looking at the road, Vasquez could have stopped more than 42 feet in front of Herzberg. They deemed the crash “entirely avoidable.”

And like that, the media focus shifted from Uber to Vasquez, sometimes in cartoonishly villainous terms. (A Daily Mail headline: “Convicted Felon Behind the Wheel of Uber Self-Driving Car Was Streaming The Voice on Her Phone and Laughing Before Crash Which Killed a Pedestrian in Arizona.”) Vasquez set a Google alert on her name and then couldn’t stop reading every comment, including insults about her looks and being trans. “I spiraled,” she recalls. “Now I’m hearing things that I haven’t heard since high school.” Offended and hurt, she wondered what her gender identity had to do with the crash, and she shut down her social media accounts.

For months, Vasquez waited to see what the Maricopa County attorney would do. A charge of vehicular manslaughter could mean years in prison—and the return of a familiar pattern in her life, a pattern of momentum turning against her.

RAFAELA VASQUEZ WAS born in suburban Maryland. Her mother died of a heart attack when she was just 3, so she was raised by her dad. He was born in Puerto Rico but moved to New York City in his early teens. He was hired at IBM and worked his way up to become a manager. The family followed his job, shifting through Georgia, Maryland, Arizona, and Virginia. Why did you shift here to describe Vasquez’s past? We’ve now established enough about this crash’s larger landscape and are turning squarely to the investigation of Vasquez and the media flurry around her. So this is a good moment to learn more about who she is. I sometimes think magazine stories get into people’s background too early, before the reader has really committed to the larger issues of the piece.

In the 1980s, when she was in grade school and junior high, her father brought home his company’s debut PCs, seeding her love of gadgets as she spent hours engrossed in Pong. But her dad was a strict Catholic and a former Marine sergeant who served in Vietnam, and he bristled at his child’s femininity. He tried any number of interventions, Vasquez says, “to pray the gay and military the gay away”—Catholic grade school, a soccer team, a military school for fifth grade called Linton Hall School. She was bullied all the way. “I just didn’t know what I was, I didn’t have anybody to talk to,” she says. She took solace in visiting her Aunt Janice, from her mom’s family of Black Southern Baptists. “Even though I know she didn’t approve of me, she never treated me any different and still loved me.” How did you decide what to use from your to create such a revealing profile? Did this section require much revision? This section was the most straightforward to write. It’s chronological, moving through the relevant points of my interview with Vasquez. It’s important to go through the exercise of deciding “What is this story really about?” and carefully, thoughtfully, add the details that help the reader best see and understand your source. What leaped out in Vasquez’s interview is she kept describing a lifelong desire for acceptance, love, and normalcy, but again and again, being cast out. Also, she spoke about how technology had always served as a welcome outlet, someplace she could find safety and self-fulfillment, very markedly with her pride in her Uber job prior to the crash.

Vasquez says she was sexually abused as a child—by two priests, a coach, and a therapist. “I thought it was me and there was something wrong with me, because every time we moved, I thought, ‘OK, it’s not gonna happen.’ But it did; I was always very alone. I never had friends … I looked like the type of person that keeps a secret.” Vasquez says she first attempted suicide in third grade.

When she was in junior high, the family moved to Tucson and, she says, the sexual abuse finally stopped. But she still didn’t have a word for how she felt; she’d seen the “transsexuals” on tabloid TV, eroticized in a way Vasquez didn’t identify with. Gay didn’t seem to describe it either. She took refuge in AOL chat­ rooms, where she could talk to people who didn’t know her in real life. Then she found an electronic dance club in town called the Fineline, where she first met transgender friends.

In high school, Vasquez worked up to a full face of goth makeup—which also helped her conceal the bruises from getting beaten up by boys. Her hair was short in those days, but Vasquez stopped correcting people when they called her “she.” She also began taking Premarin estrogen pills she bought off her trans friends for $2 a pop. “I didn’t know that it was called transitioning. All I knew is that I felt better.”

After graduation, Vasquez floated through a series of jobs, community college courses, classes at the University of Arizona. In her mid-twenties she met a guy at a rave in Phoenix. Josh, who she considered her first boyfriend, was six years her junior. By mid-2000, he was also on probation for stealing a car, and Vasquez was on probation for falsifying an unemployment claim. At the time, she was managing a Blockbuster video store in Scottsdale. One morning, she and a coworker drove to the bank to deposit $2,783 from the store’s cash register into Blockbuster’s corporate account. Vasquez’s boyfriend rushed up to the car, pointing a handgun at them, according to a police report, and she handed over the cash. Yet a month later, police arrested Vasquez. Informants had told police that she had been in on the heist. In an interrogation, her boyfriend said the same.

While Vasquez flatly denied involvement to the police, her bail was set at $70,800. She couldn’t afford that, so she remained in the Maricopa County jail for five months, housed with male inmates. Vasquez says she was sexually assaulted by both inmates and guards, but other than telling her aunt about it, she didn’t officially report the abuse. “I’d never had to have anal stitching before, but I had it in jail.”

She pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery, and the judge sentenced her to five years in prison. Her ex-boyfriend, who’d held the gun during the stickup and pleaded guilty to armed robbery—a more serious felony—was sentenced to four.

In prison, Vasquez was housed with men, wasn’t allowed to take hormones, and says she again was regularly sexually assaulted. While there, she penned a letter to her dad—“62 pages front and back”—explaining that her gender identity wasn’t going away. Much of her story is presented through the third person point of video — a hallmark of creative nonfiction identified by Tom Wolfe. Why did you choose this approach rather than quoting her more extensively? Choose quotes wisely. A writer can typically express something more clearly and succinctly than a quote does. Quotes are about showing emotion, personality, an interestingly phrased opinion, humor. A tidbit from a college journalism class has stuck with me: Don’t quote a police officer saying, “The suspect’s blood alcohol content was .12.” Quote the officer saying, “They were drunk as a skunk.”  The letter helped begin to repair their frayed relationship, and he came to visit her regularly and tried to start calling her by her preferred name. In the final year of her sentence, she was transferred to a low-security prison yard where she was able to socialize with other transgender inmates. They taught her to mix commissary goods with Vaseline or hair grease for makeup: Atomic Fireballs for lip gloss, a golf pencil for eyeliner, Kool-Aid for eyeshadow. She says the inmates tasked her with brewing contraband hooch—out of water, sugar packets, bread, oranges, and Jolly Ranchers candy. Why did you choose these details? We’re using details that go to the idea that Vasquez kept raising: acceptance and rejection –  she’s finding her way as a transgender woman, even while being separated from everyday society in prison.

Shambling back to the Phoenix area in 2004, when she was 30, Vasquez soon moved in with a friend, drew disability checks for her languishing mental health, and dove into therapy. “Prison really messed me up,” she says. “And it took me a long time to recover.” She eventually sought out jobs that let her work from home—taking tech-support calls for Cricket Wireless and Dell. Through contractors, she was hired for a string of remote jobs tweeting live commentary for The Bachelorette and Dancing With the Stars and moderating flagged content on Facebook. She signed up as a volunteer beta tester, exchanging avid feedback for free Plantronics headsets and iPads. “People fear robots are going to take over the world and our jobs? I wanted them to,” she says. “I like robots.” For one job, she wore a shirt with a camera embedded in a button and posed as a prospective tenant to surveil workers at leasing offices.

When she was working consistently, she’d bring in more than $40,000 a year—enough to rent a house and support her rescue pit bulls, Sweetie and Romeo, and later Tyson. She found Tyson in a dumpster, when he was a puppy, sealed in a plastic bag. She related to pit bulls. “They’re so misunderstood,” she says. She knew what it was like to be judged by appearances, to have people be intimidated by her. “I think I have an RBF: resting bitch face,” she says. “I get asked, ‘Are you mad?’ No.” The dogs became her main companions, hunkering down with her at home as her reclusiveness veered into agoraphobia. When her Aunt Janice died, her emotional state plunged further. At times, she’d leave the house only for late-night grocery runs for kibble or moonlit dog walks. “If I wouldn’t have had dogs,” she says, “I would have just let myself waste away.”

In 2015, Vasquez decided she needed to force herself out among people. So she signed up to drive for Lyft and Uber. She answered truthfully during Uber’s onboarding: no felonies in the past seven years. And she felt OK picking up strangers a few nights a week. It was her car, after all, and she could stop working if she got too anxious, or she could call the cops if a drunk wouldn’t leave. Her agoraphobia began to ease as she chatted with the strangers who slid into the back seat.

After a couple of years, Vasquez spotted an ad for Uber’s self-driving unit. “I aced the test,” she says. In summer 2017, she flew to Pittsburgh for a weeklong boot camp. The self-driving Volvos were set up on a training track, and Vasquez learned to hover her hands around the wheel and her foot over the brake while the car drove itself. Touching either would take over control, which she had to do swiftly, as the trainers programmed the car to make mistakes. Recruits who erred were weeded out over the week; Vasquez made the cut and flew back to Tempe for more mentoring, working up to testing the cars on public roads. “It felt refreshing to me,” she says. “It felt like I was starting over again.”

IN THE WEEKS after Herzberg’s death, Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group held a number of all-hands meetings. The triage analyst remembers that CEO Eric Meyhofer had puffy eyes—“like he was not sleeping, and crying.” Meyhofer and other leaders said they were cooperating with the police and federal investigators. They told staff that they weren’t going to let the internal investigation turn into a blame game and would make no assumptions about Vasquez. Leadership told employees they could take time off or visit on-hand grief counselors.

With the cars off the road, the company also dove into its own technical soul-searching—doing a self-assessment about the crash and Uber’s safety practices and creating a panel of safety advisers, including a former administrator of the NHTSA.

The excavation of facts was unflattering: Uber told the NTSB that its tech had never identified Herzberg as a person. Nearly every time the system changed what it thought Herzberg was—a car, a bike, other—it started from scratch in calculating where the object might be headed, that is, across the road into the Volvo’s lane. Uber had programmed the car to delay hard braking for one second to allow the system to verify the emergency—and avoid false alarms—and for the human to take over. The system would brake hard only if it could entirely avoid the crash, otherwise it would slow down gradually and warn the operator. In other words, by the time it deemed it couldn’t entirely avoid Herzberg that night, the car didn’t slam on the brakes, which might have made the impact less severe. Volvo ran its own tests after the crash, it told the NTSB, and found that its automatic braking system, the one Uber overrode for its own system, would have prevented the crash in 17 out of 20 scenarios and would have reduced the speed of impact in the other three.

“Prior to this crash, I think there was a lot of recognition among industry that ‘There but for the grace of God go I. We’re trying to be responsible, but something could happen,’” says Bryant Walker Smith, the self-driving scholar. “When the crash happened, it turned from this ‘Oh, my goodness, this could happen to anybody’ to ‘Well, yeah, of course, it was Uber.’”

As more information was released, Uber staffers were becoming increasingly frustrated by the company’s leaders. “People were blunt about it being a massive fuckup, and there being moral culpability, and that the company needed to change,” Barentine says. The triage analyst wondered if he was “implicitly involved in this. Is this blood on my hands?”

“These are people who came to work here because of the promise of self-driving and this utopian future,” a Pittsburgh-based manager told me. “It was a pretty big body blow, that they felt like they contributed to something so severe.”

The company threw out its plan to put a driverless taxi into service by the end of 2018; the new target was 2022. “Everything was defined by that event,” the manager says of the crash. “It put us in a really stark view of what the car was actually capable of doing. It was nowhere near what the public perception was.”

One morning in late May, the nearly 300 benched Tempe employees were told to report to Ghost Town. When the supervisor arrived for the meeting, he saw that senior staff had flown in. “I was like, ‘Oooooohh crap.’” Austin Geidt, an operations head who would ring the stock exchange bell when Uber went public a year later, addressed the group: Arizona had rejected their proposals to stay. Everyone was laid off.

Employees received two months of pay under state law, and another two months in an Uber separation package with a non-disclosure agreement. How did you get around the non-disclosures when you interviewed former Uber workers? Some simply thought getting their experience out there was worth it. Being anonymous was enough for many to feel comfortable speaking.  (Uber says Vasquez received a severance package too, in 2018, but would not say how much.) After the announcement, people met with HR reps on hand, said goodbyes in shock. The supervisor recalls an opera-singing operator bellowing strains of “Ave Maria” to the dwindling ranks as a coda.

Now some of Vasquez’s fellow operators pointed the finger squarely at her. Many of the nine operators who talked to me accepted—and took pride in—their role in preventing crashes. How did you decide that you’d talked to enough operators? I emailed even more, and I would have talked to anyone who replied. You simply don’t know who is going to have the revealing anecdote. Former operators could talk through what it was like on the job, how they were affected by the company’s policy, in a way no one else could.  I asked Beltran, who’d been fired for looking at his phone: Wasn’t his own lapse just a degree or two removed from Vasquez gazing at her phone for several seconds at a time? “No, no, no, no, no,” he told me. “That’s like going above and beyond not doing your job.”

That summer, the Advanced Technologies Group also laid off 100 operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco and ended its self-driving-truck program. The hundreds of remaining staff would focus on cars in a new era that was hyper-focused on improving safety.

At some point, court documents show, a technical program manager phoned police detective Thomas Haubold, who was leading the Tempe investigation. In a 48-minute recorded conversation, the caller said he was worried Vasquez was going to take too much of the blame and that a larger problem would be obscured: that in its quest to get as many cars on the road as quickly as possible, Uber had ignored risks. He told Haubold not to trust Uber to be totally forthcoming. The company, the insider said, was “very clever about liability as opposed to being smart about responsibility.” What tools did you use to collect all the various types of information for the story? I use really simple tools, really. The biggest tool is staying organized as I go, or else a project of this complexity would quickly become overwhelming. I keep all the digital material in an online drive. I track the progress of all my records requests in a spreadsheet. The timelines and outlines are in documents with links to sources. As I read hundreds of pages from my records requests, I note the page numbers of important parts in another document and some of those go into the timeline too. A secondary benefit of doing this is I can then share all of the above with the fact-checker at the end of the process.

The call seemed to make little impact. A year after the crash, an Arizona prosecutor announced that the state would not criminally charge Uber in the fatality. The next month, the Advanced Technologies Group received a $1 billion investment from SoftBank, Denso, and Toyota, valuing the division at $7.25 billion, three weeks before Uber’s IPO.

All along, some employees were surprised that no leaders had been fired because of Herz­berg’s death or in the disarray that followed. Now, with criminal charges off the table for Uber, Vasquez sat in legal purgatory alone.

STANDING IN LINE at Chipotle one day, Vasquez remembers hearing a voice: Is that the person who killed that lady? Vasquez made a beeline for the door. After photos of her face and the video of her in the Volvo circulated in the media, Vasquez tried to make herself invisible. She kept her hair straight to avoid drawing attention with the braids of multicolor yarn she used to love wearing. When she had to go to the grocery store, she would calm her nerves in the parking lot, then dash in—or simply pick things up curbside. When Covid hit, she felt utterly relieved to put on a mask.

Laid off alongside the other Tempe staff, Vasquez tried to stretch her savings—along with, eventually, disability payments for her mental health—as best she could. At one point, Vasquez applied for a job at Taco Bell to test her prospects. Try back after your legal issues have settled down, she says she was told. It’s bad publicity. Why did you put these in italics? It’s Vasquez’s recollection of the quote, so italics indicate this is the gist of what was said, not the exact words.  Lying low from the media and anyone who might recognize her, she says she lived for months with her dogs in a string of Motel 6’s.

Vasquez eventually moved to Tucson, where she cared for her father, who was being treated for cancer. With dwindling money and limited space, she had to give up her dogs, another blow as isolation set in. “Before, I chose to be alone,” she says. “This time, I felt as if I was alone because nobody wanted to be around me.” Most distressingly, she stopped the therapy that had helped her for years, wanting to avoid any risk that her therapist would get subpoenaed. When friends asked her about what they’d read about the case, Vasquez would tell them, “It’s not true.” But she couldn’t elaborate.

When she heard the news of the indictment, Vasquez struggled to breathe.

In November 2019, a year and a half after the crash, the NTSB released its final report. The 78-page document didn’t carry legal heft; it was aimed at preventing future accidents. But it called out what it said was the probable cause of the crash: Vasquez was distracted by her “personal cell phone.” The report also called her distraction a “typical effect of automation complacency”—and said that Vasquez was far from the only contributor to the accident. The board’s findings also targeted federal and state agencies’ lax regulations and—the focus of much of the report—Uber’s “inadequate safety culture.” In an NTSB board meeting, vice chair Bruce Landsberg said, “There’s enough responsibility to go around here on all sides.” NTSB chair Robert Sumwalt focused on Uber: “The collision was the last link of a long chain of actions and decisions made by an organization that unfortunately did not make safety the top priority.” Still, NTSB investigator David Pereira praised Uber’s cooperation and its post-crash safety changes to ward off further incidents.

Shortly thereafter, the state of Arizona, fighting a negligence lawsuit from Herzberg’s daughter in civil court, also partially blamed Uber, alleging the company was “vicariously liable” for its employee. (The case was dismissed.) The story deftly toggles between multiple timelines? How did you keep track of them? By and large, the structure is chronological. This was an insight from my editor John Gravois, who rescued the middle sections somewhere in the revision process with some excellent reordering.

As for criminal charges, nearly a year after that report, in August 2020, Maricopa County prosecutors brought their evidence against Vasquez before a grand jury. And that’s how Rafaela Vasquez—and only Rafaela Vasquez—was indicted for allegedly causing the first pedestrian death by a self-driving car.

THE CHARGE WAS negligent homicide with a dangerous instrument. She faced four to eight years in prison if convicted. When she heard the news, Vasquez curled into the fetal position on her father’s bedroom floor, struggling to breathe as he tried to calm her. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “I was just devastated, beyond devastated by it.”

Vasquez brought on a new legal team that was not paid by Uber. Last summer, her two new lawyers loosed Vasquez’s defense in a pretrial legal filing: Yes, she was streaming The Voice on Hulu, the defense wrote—but she wasn’t watching it; she was listening to it. And that was something operators were allowed to do. The police report says that Hulu was installed only on her personal phone, the one with the metallic case. The video, they argue, shows Vasquez at the beginning of her shift, placing the phone with the black case—her work phone—near her right knee in the center console, where she was gazing. And that phone didn’t have Hulu. When Vasquez was looking at that phone for several seconds at a time, the defense writes, she was monitoring the company Slack, “doing her job.” Her personal phone, on the other hand, was significantly farther away, on the passenger seat. This differs from what Vasquez told the NTSB, but her attorneys argue the video is clear, and exculpatory: After the crash, the dashcam shows her reaching over to the passenger side to grab her personal phone and call 911.

Barentine says that the Arizona operators chatted in many Slack employee channels, and various Slack alerts could come in from managers. Monitoring those alerts had previously been the second operator’s job; solo operators were supposed to check Slack on breaks or when pulled over, several employees told me. (Vasquez’s defense team, in their filing, claim that Slack had to be monitored in real time.) If they didn’t quiet or pare down their notifications, Barentine speculates, “they could have been getting what felt like alerts all the time.”

The filing appears to be Slack’s debut in the public record of the moments leading to the crash: Police reports don’t indicate that Vasquez ever discussed her phones on the night of the accident, and the NTSB’s notes of their interview with her don’t show her mentioning using Slack right before the crash. But both of those interviews took place before the police’s Hulu accusation became public. (Neither Tempe police nor the county attorney would comment for this story, citing the pending case.)

Vasquez’s attorneys argued that a new grand jury should be convened; the one that indicted Vasquez heard police testify only that Vasquez was watching TV and never heard a spate of other evidence: about Uber’s decisions that made the fatality more likely, about the concept of automation complacency, about the whistleblower’s call to police saying not to trust the tech behemoth.

Then, in February, the ruling came down: The case would move ahead toward trial, with no new grand jury. Vasquez and her lawyers won’t comment on their legal strategy, but Michael Piccarreta, an Arizona defense attorney and former head of the state’s bar association, reviewed the case for WIRED. Why did you choose an outside expert to review the case? I needed an expert who doesn’t have a horse in the race. But for that very reason, few are willing to invest the time to review filings, so I am always so grateful to people who do.  He says Vasquez’s lawyers can further challenge the February ruling or else present their views of the evidence at trial—unless their client opts to avoid one altogether. Vasquez could seek a plea deal, Piccarreta says, potentially reducing a prison sentence that could come down if she is found guilty.

The outcome of a trial, Piccarreta explains, would hang on whether Vasquez “grossly deviated” from the standard of care that a “reasonable person” in her place would have taken, the definition of negligent homicide in Arizona. To Vasquez’s defense team, that “reasonable person” is not a driver but rather an operator of a self-driving Uber; even the NTSB, they add, says that distraction is a typical and even predictable effect of automation complacency. The attorneys draw attention to the fact that Herzberg’s judgment was impaired by drugs, and that she was illegally jaywalking at night in a dark coat where posted signs say not to. They highlight the NTSB investigation’s findings against Uber and how the company worked “hand-in-glove” with Tempe police. “It was folly to rely on unverified claims made with a company with deep pockets and an interest in minimizing its liability,” their legal filing states. “By assisting the police in the investigation, the company could steer the investigation, enabling it to offload its liability to Ms. Vasquez.” (Moir, the former Tempe police chief, defends her department’s investigation and dismisses the idea that police “would favor a relationship over evidence.”)

In public statements and legal filings, the prosecution has treated Vasquez as a distracted driver. But to win, Piccarreta says, the county needs to prove that Vasquez was “grossly” negligent. “If she’s just negligent, she’s not guilty.” The prosecutors would, he says, “need something to really get the jury upset at her.” If someone took a photo of your desk as you worked on this story, what would it reveal? Former coworkers would laugh at this: My desk tends towards disarray. But there is a method to the madness, I promise. There’d be a manila folder with the physical documents that I’d gathered in Arizona. A tape recorder. Post-its with tiny “to do” lists for the next few hours. Coffee. Notably absent while I’m writing is my cell phone, because I want to focus. The desktop of my computer is even scarier: so many tabs open it maxes out the browser width, a digital hoarder thing. But in the ways that really matter, I am quite organized — and that’s in these outlines and chronologies and spreadsheets. I want to help the ‘future me’ who will eventually need to make sense of this mountain of information and write a draft.

Some former Uber staffers who spoke with me do feel troubled that a lone frontline employee has been singled out. “I felt shame when I heard,” Barentine says of Vasquez being charged. “We owed Rafaela better oversight and support. We also put her in a tough position.”

“You can’t put the blame on just that one person,” says the Pittsburgh manager. “I mean, it’s absurd.” Uber “had to know this would happen. We get distracted in regular driving,” the manager says.

“It’s not like somebody got into their car and decided to run into someone,” says the triage analyst. “They were working within a framework. And that framework created the conditions that allowed that to happen.” As for why Uber didn’t and won’t face criminal charges, Piccarreta says, “They’re one step removed, unless when you examine the process, they put the cars out knowing this was going to happen and just didn’t care.” Uber, he says, has a built-in defense: that it put a human in there for the very purpose of avoiding crashes.

Of course, if the case goes to trial, only the jury’s opinion will matter. Vasquez knows that fair consideration of the evidence would require a jury to open-mindedly weigh the actions of a transgender woman gasping in the crash video. The county attorney has already asked for permission to question Vasquez about her 20-year-old crimes, though Piccarreta predicts the judge won’t allow it. After reading the online vitriol against her, Vasquez says, “Do I think I could get a fair trial, if it ever came to that? No.”

IN AUGUST, IN an area of a Phoenix suburb where Waymo vans ferry customers around with no human pilot at all, Vasquez steered an aging sedan into an office park in the withering, near-100-degree heat. On the way here, she was paranoid that other drivers would recognize her, even though, rationally, she knew they couldn’t see through her dark-tinted windows. After she parked, she strode into her lawyer’s office and slid behind an imposing wooden conference table. Flowing leopard-print pants disguised her clunky ankle monitor. A dainty headband crested her head, and a triad of piercings, a holdover from her goth years, dotted her chin.

After three and a half years of public silence, Vasquez had shown up to talk to me about what she’s been through. Why did you wait until this point to reveal that you interviewed Vasquez? The subdek and packaging of the story makes it clear I’ve spoken to Vasquez, so it’s up to us where we want to place the scene of the interview. The structure has moved chronologically, and my interview with her doesn’t come until somewhere near the end. So placing this higher up would have been injecting some future moment in the chronology, yanking the reader out of time. Lastly, we’re now shifting into the big picture themes that we’re going to conclude with, so this scene starts that transition into some type of closure: Vasquez arriving in person after everything we’ve just read has happened, to reflect on where she’s at now.  For nearly seven hours—never asking for a break—her stories gushed out in wounded torrents. How did you persuade Rafaela Vasquez to talk with you? I told her legal team that I wanted to write about her experience, mentioning the dearth of public information about her, and that federal investigators had cited many factors playing into the crash while Vasquez was the only one getting criminally blamed.

Her hurt and anger, about the sexual abuse, everything she has endured as trans, radiated. Her candor and wry sense of humor seared. When she was talking about the beatings she took from high school bullies, her voice caught with emotion. She once interrupted herself to question whether anyone wants to hear from her. “Nobody’s gonna care, right?” Her attorneys sat nearby, tapping on laptops with an ear half-open—making sure we stayed within the guardrails we’d agreed to. No questions about the case.

“I feel betrayed in a way,” Vasquez told me. “At first everybody was all on my side, even the chief of police. Now it’s the opposite. It was literally, one day I’m fine and next day I’m the villain. It’s very—it’s isolating.”

There was a time, right around when Vasquez started to drive for Uber to force herself out of the house, that the self-driving revolution seemed right around the corner. Companies brayed about rapid timelines; zeitgeist-chasing tech workers wanted to get into the hyped space before the problem was already solved.

“You can’t put the blame on just that one person. It’s absurd.”

Herzberg’s death punctured that promise, and recent years have seen the industry humbled. The projections of full autonomy—not just on highways, which are seen as the easier task; not just on certain routes in Houston, San Francisco, and Phoenix; but everywhere—are now much further out. At the end of 2020, Uber offloaded the Advanced Technologies Group and hundreds of employees to a company called Aurora, buying a 26 percent stake and a guarantee to use its tech in the future. The electric-vehicle self-driving startup Zoox was sold to Amazon. Lyft sold its autonomous division to a subsidiary of Toyota. At this point, the story seems to be drawing to a close. What was your intention as you structured, composed and revised these final paragraphs? We’re tying up all the threads: what’s going on with Uber and the self-driving industry; with Arizona, and with Vasquez. The legacy of this crash for all of them.

Anthony Levandowski—a controversial early star of the self-driving industry—said in a recent interview that the tech just isn’t there yet for autonomous road vehicles. He has dedicated his new startup to hauling rocks at mines. Tesla is now under investigation by the US Department of Transportation because 11 of its cars have crashed into parked emergency vehicles while in Autopilot or cruise control. At one NTSB hearing on a fatal Tesla crash, then agency chair Sumwalt said, “It’s time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars.” How did you get this quote? Did you attend the hearing? I started my reporting long after the hearing, so for this and many other parts of the investigative process in this piece, I had to use the available public records, videos, statements and press.

Last fall, in an echo of Vasquez’s case, Los Angeles County prosecutors charged a Tesla driver with vehicular manslaughter when his car, reportedly in Autopilot mode, ran a red light, crashed into another vehicle, and killed two people inside. Why did you use the qualifier “reportedly”? That case was pretrial, and more facts may come out, so we wanted to cast this in the realm of allegations.  (The driver pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a hearing.) This time, it wasn’t an employee of a self-driving company facing charges but a private citizen who allegedly failed to correct his own erring car. The message: Vasquez’s situation could be yours too.

While the Tempe crash sobered the industry, it’s also, in some ways, receding in the rearview mirror. Autonomous test cars from eight companies trek across Arizona’s roads today. More than two years after sending his stern letter suspending the Advanced Technologies Group from the state, Governor Ducey emailed Khosrowshahi. A California judge had just ruled against the company’s gig-worker labor model; Ducey asked the CEO for a “conversation about ways our state can be a partner in ensuring Uber’s continued success … Arizona is open for business and we would be honored to support Uber’s long-term growth.”

Studies and support groups attest that people who have accidentally played a role in a death are tormented by an amalgam of survivor’s guilt, trauma, and moral injury, no matter what happens in the justice system. In our interview, Vasquez couldn’t talk about how she felt about Herzberg’s death; it veered too close to the case. Still, I imagined that being part of a cyborg of human and technical factors that ended a life must stir a deep but confusing form of grief. She is the first to shoulder this harrowing tech-age version of an old and primal pain. What about your reporting and writing made it possible to draw this conclusion? This question of how one contends — not just in the legal system, but personally — with an accidental death is a huge reason I was drawn to this story in the first place. But Vasquez’s attorneys wouldn’t let me talk so directly with her about the crash. I thought it was very important that the reader knows that it’s not that Vasquez doesn’t have any feelings about Herzberg’s death; it’s simply that she wasn’t allowed to talk about it in the interview. So I had to take on a little bit of the emotional work myself. I framed the thought with “I imagined” to make it clear this is my informed conjecture. It’s still based on quite a bit of evidence: Vasquez’s comments at the scene of the crash and her attorneys previously telling a journalist that Vasquez was “devastated by the loss of life.” I also learned a lot about people contending with accidental deaths or injuries from reading articles, online message boards, academic studies and essays that some others have penned.

When we met, Vasquez was spending her days raising her niece and nephew and visiting her 84-year-old father in the hospital. He had stuck by her through the case, the closest family she had left. In recent years he’d stopped slipping up and saying “son” and had started to call her his daughter. “I know he loves me,” she says. A month after the interview, he died. She was left to grieve, a loss that piled onto her ongoing despair about the case. About what prison would mean if she were again housed with men. About the next Google alert for Rafaela Vasquez.

Which brings her to the plan. Why did you set up the conclusion with this sentence? It’s one last bit of suspense. “A plan” is about the future and it connotes agency over one’s life, while much of this drawn-out legal case has been out of Vasquez’s control. While it would be bizarre for a reader to give up one graf from the end, hopefully this sentence drives them forward with curiosity and anticipation.

Someday, Vasquez will walk into county court, not for a criminal hearing but on a more self-actualizing mission: to legally change her gender and her name. She’ll choose the name that she once dreamed her mother gave her, the one her dad and friends called her, the one she asked me not to print because making it public would defeat the point. Was this an ethical decision you had to wrestle with? My mentor, the fantastic writer Elizabeth Weil, teaches a concept of leaning into the problem. So instead of sitting there thinking ‘I can’t use this name, what now?’ write that she didn’t want you to use the name. That says something more revealing and powerful than the name itself, which wouldn’t mean that much to readers anyway.  Uber, the first self-driving pedestrian death, the toxic comments and Google searches, will stay behind with Rafaela and with the male name on the court documents. The catastrophe will be tethered to the “M” that never described her anyway.

She will make the change once the case is done. Once the attention ebbs. “That way,” she explains, like a woman who has thought this through, “it could be like a past life.” She will slip back into society; few will know the rest. Why did you decide to conclude the story this why and did you consider any alternatives? My first draft had Vasquez’s “past life” quote as the end. But my editor, Maria Streshinsky, expertly plucked this sentence out of the final paragraph, and suggested it for the ending. Brilliant. Instead of looking back with “past life,” it moves us into Vasquez’s hope for the future, for eventual acceptance that she’s been grappling with all along. Also, it’s a subtle nod to readers who have stayed with me for 10,000 words: they are now part of the crew that knows “the rest.”

* * *

Chip Scanlan is an award-winning newspaper reporter who taught writing at The Poynter Institute for 15  years. He publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons and has two books, ”Writers on Writing” and “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism.”

Further Reading