Uber Puts its Self-Driving Volvos Back Out On Pittsburgh Streets, ‘With Drivers'

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【Summary】After fatally striking a pedestrian in March with one of its self-driving Volvos, Uber hopes to move forward and has announced a fresh set of safety initiatives to prevent another tragedy like the one in Arizona from ever happening again.

Eric Walz    Jul 24, 2018 4:59 PM PT
Uber Puts its Self-Driving Volvos Back Out On Pittsburgh Streets, ‘With Drivers'

Since a self-driving Uber vehicle fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona last March, the company's fleet of self-driving Volvos in Arizona and Pittsburgh has remained grounded. The accident was the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle and caused Uber to pause and take a closer look at the safety of their self-driving software as well as the training of drivers who oversee the operation of the vehicles.

The accident severely damaged Uber's reputation and brought scrutiny to Uber's entire self-driving program. In the days after the accident in Arizona, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi ordered a ‘top-to-bottom' review of Uber's entire self-driving car program.

Now the ride-hailing giant hopes to move forward and has announced a fresh set of safety initiatives to prevent another tragedy like the one in Arizona from ever happening again.

To start, all of Uber's vehicles will have their autonomous driving systems disabled and will be driven in ‘manual mode', meaning a human driver will be solely responsible for operating the vehicle.

In the Arizona incident, the company's software failed to identify and stop for the pedestrian in the roadway while the so-called ‘safety driver' was distracted while watching a television program on a smartphone.

Uber said it retrained some of its vehicle operators, which are now being called ‘Mission Specialists'. According to Uber, Mission Specialists undergo extensive training to operate self-driving vehicles on the company's private test track near Pittsburgh and on public streets.

The Mission Specialist will operate in teams of two. The person behind the wheel is primarily responsible for maintaining vehicle safety, while a second person in the passenger seat will document notable events, presumably using a laptop computer.

Having a second person in the vehicle is reversal for Uber, after the company made a decision to remove the passenger seat operator from some of test fleet.

The driver in the Arizona accident, which killed 49 year old Elaine Herzog, was alone in the vehicle, without the benefit of a second pair of eyes to look for hazards or assistance in monitoring Uber's self-driving software.

In a blog post, Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group wrote that all of company's self-driving vehicles will have a driver-monitoring system installed, to make sure the drivers are paying attention.

If the system detects inattentive behavior, an audio alert will cue the Mission Specialist. The system also alerts a remote monitor who will take appropriate action once they've assessed the situation. This system will be active whenever the vehicle is in use. Uber did not say what the remote monitor will be able to control.

In addition, all of the Volvo XC90's will have the built-in collision avoidance system is enabled at all times. The system activates emergency braking under certain conditions, such as a sudden change in traffic ahead of the vehicle, and provides imminent collision warnings to the vehicle operator. In the Arizona incident, this system was switched off by Uber.

Uber also said it also redesigned the touch-screen display in its vehicles to minimize potential distractions. In its blog post, Uber wrote that the displays were redesigned in accordance with NHTSA's Human Factors Design Guidance For Driver-Vehicle Interfaces, and includes turn-by-turn navigation.

Despite the safety changes, it may be too late for Uber to catch up to its rivals including Waymo, and GM's self-driving unit Cruise. Uber has fell way behind both Waymo and GM in the race to introduce a self-driving car service.

Uber struggled with its image last year, including in-fighting by its board of directors, a lawsuit filed by Waymo for stolen intellectual property, complaints of harassment by employees, the ousting of its CEO Travis Kalanick, and the revoking of its vehicle registrations by the California DMV, which led the company to test its self-driving cars in Arizona instead.

Meanwhile, Waymo has racked up over 8 million miles of real world driving with its fleet of driverless cars—all without a major incident. Waymo plans to launch a commercial ride-hailing service later this year in Arizona, something that Uber had hoped to do first.

For now, Uber is taking it slow as it tries to get back in the game.

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