Uber Pledges Self-Driving Safety
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.