Uber self-driving cars returns to public roads

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Uber has announced that it has officially restarted testing its self-driving cars on public roads after nine months after one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

The company received a letter from Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation authorizing it to restart its program, albeit in a highly scaled back fashion.

Uber’s self-driving cars will be confined to a one mile loop around Pittsburgh’s Strip District, where the company’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) is headquartered. Only two vehicles are being tested for now, though more will be added. The cars won’t exceed the posted speed limit of 25 mph, and will have two safety drivers in them at all times Uber calls them mission specialists. At the moment the cars on the test so is isn’t picking up any passengers.

After the Uber struck a 49 old citizen at Arizona. The governor of Arizona barred the company from further testing in his state, and Uber subsequently laid off hundreds of safety drivers in Arizona and Pittsburgh.

The company’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi stop the program all together. But in an April interview with the Today show Khosrowshahi said the company is absolutely committed to self-driving cars. And in May, Khosrowshahi was promoting the company’s inevitable return to public road testing. Uber’s ATG had conducted a top-to-bottom safety review. In July, Uber returned its cars to the roads in Pittsburgh, but in manual mode only. And in November, it released its voluntary safety report to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber ATG, wrote in a blog post: “We implemented recommendations from our review processes, spanning technical, operational and organizational improvements, This required a lot of introspection and took some time. Now we are ready to move forward.”

Uber said it will resume testing with two employees in each autonomous vehicle, enabling Volvo’s factory setting for automatic braking, and strictly monitoring safety drivers. The company said it now has real-time third-party monitoring of backup safety drivers, it sets limits on the amount of time drivers can work per day, and it has improved training.

Uber has been working closer with regulators and third-party experts to build trust. A spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said since Uber has “accepted established state guidelines, demonstrated transparency, and conformed to our expectations in addressing the unique conditions of a complex urban environment, the city is satisfied that self-driving testing operations by Uber will not introduce an increased level of safety risk in Pittsburgh,” the spokesperson said.

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Navigant, had a briefing with Uber in November. They said all the right things as far as revamping all of their processes for training of staff, reviewing and validating changes and general procedures, Abuel samid said. Personally, I’d still like to see every system being tested on public roads reviewed and evaluated by an independent third party, but since that is unlikely any time soon, this will probably have to do.

Abuel samid noted that Uber doesn’t appear to be trying to rush this market as the company was under the management of the previous CEO, Travis Kalanick. And he pointed to Toyota’s partnership with Uber, in which the Japanese automaker is investing $500 million in developing self-driving cars with Uber, as a big vote of confidence that the changes taking place at Uber are in the right direction.