Uber’s self-driv­ing cars are set to re­turn in a down­sized test

They won’t op­er­ate at night or in wet weather, and they won’t ex­ceed 40 km/h


SAN FRAN­CISCO— Eight months af­ter one of Uber’s self-driv­ing cars struck and killed a pedes­trian, the ride-hail­ing com­pany is close to putting its au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles back on the road in a dras­ti­cally re­duced ver­sion of ear­lier ef­forts.

Uber was driv­ing its au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles on pub­lic roads in four cities — some­times at night — at speeds as high as 90 kilo­me­tres per hour when test­ing was halted af­ter the ac­ci­dent. Start­ing within a few weeks, it plans to run the ve­hi­cles on a mile loop be­tween two com­pany of­fices in Pitts­burgh. They won’t op­er­ate at night or in wet weather, and they won’t ex­ceed 40 kilo­me­tres per hour, Uber said Wed­nes­day.

But even as the com­pany has low­ered ex­pec­ta­tions, its au­ton­o­mous car tech­nol­ogy has faced con­sid­er­able is­sues. The cars have re­acted more slowly than hu­man drivers and strug­gled to pass so-called track val­i­da­tion tests, the last step be­fore re­turn­ing to city streets, ac­cord­ing to a dozen Uber doc­u­ments and emails as well as in­ter­views with seven cur­rent and for­mer em­ploy­ees, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not al­lowed to talk pub­licly about the com­pany.

The scaled-down street test­ing would be a hum­ble re­turn for a cut­ting-edge ef­fort that Uber’s ex­ec­u­tives once con­sid­ered a key to its pros­per­ity. While Uber is grow­ing fast and is ex­pected to make its de­but on Wall Street next year, it is wildly un­prof­itable. The com­pany lost $1 bil­lion (U.S.) in its most re­cent quar­ter.

Self-driv­ing cars were sup­posed to help cut Uber’s losses by elim­i­nat­ing the need for drivers, per­haps the com­pany’s big­gest ex­pense. But ex­pec­ta­tions were well be­fore the tech­nol­ogy.

At a re­cent staff meet­ing, Dara Khos­row­shahi, the chief ex­ec­u­tive, ac­knowl­edged er­rors in Uber’s ear­lier driver­less car ef­forts. “We did screw up,” he said in com­ments pro­vided by Uber.

The San Fran­cisco com­pany took its au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles to Ari­zona in 2017, de­ploy­ing more than 100 on roads around Phoenix. In March, a woman in Tempe was fa­tally struck at night by one that was go­ing 63 kilo­me­tres per hour along a 21kilo­me­tre route. It was one of about 200 Uber self-driv­ing cars be­ing tested on roads in Ari­zona, Pitts­burgh, San Fran­cisco and Toronto.

Some test drivers wor­ried that Uber was too ag­gres­sive. They com­plained, for ex­am­ple, that a soft­ware up­date had led to er­ratic driv­ing by the cars, in­clud­ing once when the ve­hi­cles started run­ning red lights, two self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle test drivers said.

Af­ter the crash, Uber vowed to keep its au­ton­o­mous cars off pub­lic roads un­til it could en­sure they were safe. The com­pany is­sued a 70-page safety re­port and added more rig­or­ous test­ing on closed tracks and in sim­u­la­tions.

But as re­cently as a few weeks ago, the com­pany’s au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle unit, Uber Ad­vanced Tech­nolo­gies Group, or ATG, was still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing track test­ing “fail­ures” on dif­fer­ent ver­sions of its soft­ware, ac­cord­ing in­ter­nal com­pany emails.

To match the re­ac­tion time of a hu­man driver at 40 kilo­me­tres per hour, the cars needed to drive “20 (per cent) slower than a hu­man,” Bran­don Basso, a di­rec­tor at ATG, wrote in a Nov. 1 email. Even at slower speeds, the cars were pass­ing only 82 per cent of track tests, ac­cord­ing to com­pany doc­u­ments. A week later, Eric Mey­hofer, who heads the unit, de­clared that Uber was go­ing back to 40 kilo­me­tres per hour. The faster speed would prove that the cars were “un­equiv­o­cally wor­thy of be­ing back on the road,” he wrote in an email.

Some en­gi­neers thought there was an­other rea­son: Mey­hofer wanted to demon­strate progress to his boss, Khos­row­shahi. And they wor­ried that Uber was tak­ing short­cuts to hit in­ter­nal mile­stones, ac­cord­ing to two cur­rent em­ploy­ees.

An Uber spokesper­son, Sarah Ab­boud, said the com­pany would not com­pro­mise safety to meet de­vel­op­ment goals.

“As we have said many times be­fore, our re­turn is pred­i­cated on suc­cess­fully pass­ing our rig­or­ous track tests and hav­ing our let­ter of au­tho­riza­tion from the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion in hand,” Ab­boud said.

While Uber’s cars have been off the streets, its com­peti­tors have pushed ahead with sim­i­lar projects.

Google’s au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle unit, Waymo, started a driver­less ride-hail­ing ser­vice in Ari­zona on Wed­nes­day. An­other con­tender, Lyft, started a ro­botic ride-hail­ing ser­vice in Las Ve­gas this year with the man­u­fac­turer Ap­tiv. Gen­eral Mo­tors ac­quired the self-driv­ing startup Cruise in 2016, has since net­ted ma­jor in­vest­ments from SoftBank and Honda, and has tested the ve­hi­cles in San Fran­cisco and other lo­ca­tions.

Mey­hofer was con­fi­dent that Uber’s cars could re­sume street test­ing in the sum­mer, and he in­structed en­gi­neers to plan a party to cel­e­brate their re­turn, ac­cord­ing to five peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the plan. But em­ploy­ees wor­ried that a party would ap­pear in­sen­si­tive, and it was set aside. Some changes were easy. When the Uber self-driv­ing car struck a pedes­trian, its solo safety driver was watch­ing a tele­vi­sion show on her phone and didn’t hit the brakes un­til af­ter the im­pact, ac­cord­ing to find­ings from the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board and the lo­cal po­lice. To pre­vent con­flicts be­tween Uber’s soft­ware and Volvo’s, Uber had also dis­abled an emer­gency brak­ing fea­ture that was stan­dard in the Volvo SUVs the com­pany used.

Gov­ern­ment guide­lines for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle test­ing are, at best, piece­meal. But un­der rules the com­pany set for it­self, the test­ing ve­hi­cles would al­ways have at least two peo­ple driv­ing and mon­i­tor­ing their sys­tems — a stan­dard among its com­peti­tors — and the brak­ing sys­tem would be turned on.

“It’s kind of like the wild West,” said John P. Thomas, a re­search engi­neer spe­cial­iz­ing in au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle safety at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. “Ev­ery­one is just do­ing what they think is best.”

In July, Uber put its self-driv­ing cars back on the road in Pitts­burgh, but with hu­man drivers. The re­sump­tion of au­ton­o­mous test­ing on city streets would take longer. Uber laid off the ma­jor­ity of its ve­hi­cle op­er­a­tors in Pitts­burgh and shut down an au­ton­o­mous truck­ing unit to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on cars.

Still, Uber re­ceived an im­por­tant vote of con­fi­dence in Au­gust with a $500 mil­lion in­vest­ment from Toy­ota with a plan to in­stall Uber’s self-driv­ing sys­tem in a fleet of Toy­ota mini­vans.

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