Au­ton­o­mous Uber ve­hi­cles to come back in smaller test

San Francisco Chronicle - - BUSINES SREPORT - By Daisuke Wak­abayashi and Kate Conger

Eight months af­ter one of Uber’s self-driv­ing cars struck and killed a pedes­trian, the ride­hail­ing 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 55 mph when test­ing was halted af­ter the in­ci­dent. 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 25 mph, 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 what are known as 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 is­sue an ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing next year, it is wildly un­prof­itable. The com­pany lost $1 bil­lion 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 ahead of the tech­nol­ogy.

At a re­cent staff meet­ing, CEO Dara Khos­row­shahi ac­knowl­edged er­rors in the 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, putting more than 100 on roads around Phoenix. In March, a woman in Tempe was fa­tally struck at night by one that was go­ing 39 mph along a 13-mile route. It was one of about 200 Uber self­driv­ing cars be­ing tested on roads in Ari­zona, Pitts­burgh, San Fran­cisco and Toronto.

Some test drivers had 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 that 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, 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 25 mph, the cars needed to drive “20% slower than a hu­man,” Bran­don Basso, a di­rec­tor at in the au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle unit, wrote in a Nov. 1 email. Even at slower speeds, the cars were pass­ing only 82 per­cent of track tests, ac­cord­ing to com­pany doc­u­ments.

A week later, Eric Mey­hofer, who heads the unit, de­clared that Uber would go back to 25 mph. 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 Khos­row­shahi. And they wor­ried that Uber was tak­ing short­cuts to hit mile­stones, ac­cord­ing to two cur­rent em­ploy­ees.

An Uber spokes­woman, 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.

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 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 self­driv­ing sys­tem in a fleet of Toy­ota mini­vans.

By late sum­mer, Uber was plan­ning for an Oct. 12 re­turn date. But ex­ec­u­tives wor­ried that test­ing on closed tracks had been “un­co­or­di­nated and slow” at a Septem­ber soft­ware lead­er­ship re­treat in Mon­tana, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­nal doc­u­ments.

When the dead­line passed, Khos­row­shahi wrote a pub­lic blog post cau­tion­ing that Uber would not rush.

“We are com­mit­ted to an­tic­i­pat­ing and man­ag­ing risks that may come with this type of test­ing, but we can­not — as no self-driv­ing de­vel­oper can — an­tic­i­pate and elim­i­nate ev­ery one,” he wrote.

Uber pushed the re­turn date to Nov. 28. But when a test in early Novem­ber ran Uber’s ve­hi­cles through more than 70 tri­als at 25 mph, they failed in 10 cat­e­gories, in­clud­ing be­ing slow to rec­og­nize an­other car that didn’t yield.

In an email, Jon Thoma­son, who leads the soft­ware ef­forts at the au­ton­o­mous group, urged em­ploy­ees not to “panic,” be­cause this wasn’t the lat­est ver­sion of the au­ton­o­mous soft­ware. Ab­boud, the Uber spokes­woman, said that some of the fail­ures in­volved “in­ter­mit­tent” brak­ing, but that the com­pany did not con­sider it a safety is­sue.

A num­ber of en­gi­neers an­tic­i­pated that they would miss an­other dead­line, but Mey­hofer sent an email Nov. 27 declar­ing that, as of 6:30 p.m. that day, Uber’s au­ton­o­mous sys­tem was ready for on-road test­ing.

“It’s kind of like the Wild West. Ev­ery­one is just do­ing what they think is best.” John Thomas, Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nolog y

An­gelo Merendino / AFP / Getty Im­ages 2016

Uber’s self-driv­ing cars are re­turn­ing, but in a dras­ti­cally scaled-back test. One killed a pedes­trian in Ari­zona eight months ago.

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