Uber Pledges Self-Dri­ving Safety

L'Opinion - - The Wall Street Journal - Greg Ben­sin­ger

Uber Tech­no­lo­gies Inc. vo­wed to im­prove the safety of its self-dri­ving ve­hicles as it looks to re­sume tes­ting of the tech­no­lo­gy sus­pen­ded ear­lier this year af­ter one of its cars struck and killed an Ari­zo­na pe­des­trian.

In a leng­thy re­port Fri­day, the ride-hai­ling giant said it would im­prove its soft­ware and trai­ning and keep two test dri­vers in eve­ry ve­hicle, among other mea­sures.

Uber said it is ap­plying for a per­mit with Penn­syl­va­nia’s Tran­spor­ta­tion De­part­ment to re­sume tes­ting of the ve­hicles in Pitts­burgh, where it has an of­fice.

Af­ter the fa­tal col­li­sion in Ari­zo­na in March, the com­pa­ny hal­ted tes­ting of the ro­bot cars in four ci­ties, clo­sed its Tempe, Ariz., of­fice, and fi­red about 400 test dri­vers as part of a broad re­vamp of the cost­ly pro­gram.

Some in­ves­tors and exe­cu­tives have ar­gued the di­vi­sion, known as Ad­van­ced Tech­no­lo­gies Group, should be shut­te­red or pa­red back si­gni­fi­cant­ly as costs moun­ted.

Last year, Uber pul­led the se­cond safety dri­ver, who sat in the front pas­sen­ger seat, from most self-dri­ving ve­hicles as part of an ef­fort to save costs. The car in the March ac­ci­dent was ope­ra­ted by a single safety dri­ver, the last line of de­fense, who in­ves­ti­ga­tors said was strea­ming vi­deo on her phone in the mo­ments be­fore the crash ra­ther than wat­ching the road.

Tech­no­lo­gists be­lieve au­to­no­mous ve­hicles could be sa­fer than to­day’s cars by eli­mi­na­ting hu­man er­ror, as well as cut­ting costs through more ef­fi­cien­cy. But the tech­no­lo­gy is years from road­wor­thi­ness and will have to pass re­gu­la­to­ry mus­ter.

“This is not a sprint: Self-dri­ving and hu­man-dri­ven ve­hicles will co­exist on road­ways for de­cades to come,” Uber Chief Exe­cu­tive Da­ra Khos­row­sha­hi said in the safety re­port. “Ad­ding self-dri­ving ve­hicles to our plat­form could in­crease the size and ef­fi­cien­cy of the Uber net­work as a whole, ra­ther than re­pla­cing trips.”

The race to get the ve­hicles on the road isn’t just about safety. Uber has al­so es­ti­ma­ted about th­ree-quar­ters of the cost of rides goes to its contract dri­vers. The com­pa­ny is eyeing a 2019 ini­tial pu­blic of­fe­ring that could va­lue it around $120 bil­lion; it spent about $750 mil­lion on its self-dri­ving ef­forts last year, people fa­mi­liar with the mat­ter have said.

Uber is al­so cha­sing ma­jor au­to ma­kers to get its ve­hicles on the road first, as well as Al­pha­bet Inc., which is now a sta­ke­hol­der as part of a set­tle­ment over Uber’s al­le­ged theft of ro­bot car trade se­crets.

A spo­kes­wo­man for the Penn­syl­va­nia Tran­spor­ta­tion De­part­ment said the agen­cy is re­vie­wing Uber’s ap­pli­ca­tion.

A spo­kes­wo­man for Pitts­burgh Mayor William Pe­du­to said Uber seems to be ta­king a more mea­su­red ap­proach to rol­ling out the ve­hicles than be­fore. “It ap­pears they’ve made more safety im­pro­ve­ments,” she said. “There’s more dis­cus­sions we’ll need to have, in­clu­ding how ma­ny ve­hicles they’ll have on ci­ty streets and the exact ti­ming.”

As part of its new ap­proach, Uber said it would no lon­ger di­sable bra­king sys­tems from the Vol­vo SUVs it uses, which in­ves­ti­ga­tors said was the case in the March ac­ci­dent. It will al­so im­prove its soft­ware to bet­ter de­tect ob­jects or people more qui­ck­ly.

The com­pa­ny fi­red al­most all of its so-cal­led safety dri­vers ear­lier this year, saying it will re­hire some with more ex­ten­sive trai­ning for on-road and track tes­ting. Some of those dri­vers, whose job is to re­main alert and take the wheel if so­me­thing goes awry, had li­mi­ted prior trai­ning and no safety back­ground.

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