Uber’s self-driving cars are back, just barely
Instead of a loud, triumphant return, Uber's self-driving cars made it back on the road in the most humble, modest way on Thursday
Nine months after one of Uber’s autonomous vehicle struck and killed a woman outside Phoenix, Arizona, seven of the same Volvo XC90s loaded with sensors and cameras are back in self-driving mode in Pittsburgh. But the self-driving program looks a lot different than it once did.
For starters, it’s a shadow of its former self, with only a handful of self-driving vehicles out at a time and only in about a mile area in Pittsburgh. Uber has 200 vehicles in its fleet. The vehicles will only operate during the day on weekdays (and not on holidays). For now, no passengers will be allowed in the test rides. Previously, Uber riders in Pittsburgh were occasionally matched with self-driving vehicles
Uber does plan to expand its test route, but for now testing is only in the limited area.
Manual rides started Thursday in San Francisco and Toronto, with only a few vehicles in each city driving near Uber offices. In Toronto the cars will go on the highway to work on AI-enabled mapping.
A video shows the “months of reflection and improvement” the self-driving team took on after 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was killed in March. “We needed to do better,” the narrator says. But now the company is “confident” it can return to the road safely.
The return comes after the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation approved Uber this week to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Uber’s had vehicles in manual mode driving through Pittsburgh since July, but was waiting for state approval and passing its own internal testing benchmarks before switching back to autonomous mode.
Uber’s track verification testing put common road scenarios and “edge” cases in front of self-driving vehicles to stress and push the driving systems and prepare the operators for real-world driving.
The return reverts back to including two safety operators in the vehicle in the driver and passenger seats. The return to the road only came about after Uber implemented new operational, technical, and organizational standings. Now every vehicle has automated emergency braking that can work with the self-driving software. During the fatal crash, the braking system had been disabled.
A bevy of changes include new touchscreens for the operators that are supposed to be less distracting and a driver monitoring system with cameras to detect distracted operators. The operator in the fatal crash was watching a streaming TV show on her mobile phone, according to police reports.
It’s a cautious return, but it’s a return.
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