Uber wants to re­sume self­driv­ing tests on pub­lic roads

The Review - - AUTOMOTIVE - By Tom Kr­isher

Nearly eight months af­ter one of its au­ton­o­mous test ve­hi­cles hit and killed an Ari­zona pedes­trian, Uber wants to re­sume test­ing on pub­lic roads.

The com­pany has filed an ap­pli­ca­tion on with the Penn­syl­va­nia De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion to test in Pitts­burgh, and it has is­sued a lengthy safety re­port pledg­ing to put two hu­man backup driv­ers in each ve­hi­cle and take a raft of other pre­cau­tions to make the ve­hi­cles safe.

Com­pany of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge they have a long way to go to re­gain pub­lic trust af­ter the March 18 crash in Tempe, Ari­zona, that killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she crossed a dark­ened road out­side the lines of a cross­walk.

Po­lice said Uber’s backup driver in the au­ton­o­mous Volvo SUV was stream­ing the tele­vi­sion show “The Voice” on her phone and look­ing down­ward be­fore the crash.

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board said the au­ton­o­mous driv­ing sys­tem on the Volvo spot­ted Herzberg about six sec­onds be­fore hit­ting her, but did not stop be­cause the sys­tem used to au­to­mat­i­cally ap­ply brakes in po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions had been dis­abled. A Volvo emer­gency brak­ing sys­tem also had been turned off.

“Our goal is to re­ally work to re­gain that trust and to work to help move the en­tire in­dus­try for­ward,” Noah Zych, Uber’s head of sys­tem safety for self-driv­ing cars, said in an in­ter­view. “We think the right thing to do is to be open and trans­par­ent about the things that we are do­ing.”

Among the other pre­cau­tions, San Fran­cisco-based Uber will keep the au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle sys­tem en­gaged at all times and ac­ti­vat­ing the Volvo’s au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing sys­tem as a backup.

In ad­di­tion, Uber is re­quir­ing more tech­ni­cal train­ing and ex­per­tise of em­ploy­ees sit­ting be­hind the wheel of the ve­hi­cles, ac­cord­ing to a 70-page safety re­port the com­pany re­leased Fri­day.

The re­port comes af­ter the ride­hail­ing com­pany shut down au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle test­ing to do an in­ter­nal re­view of its safety pro­ce­dures, as well as an out­side re­view by risk man­age­ment firm LeClairRyan.

Although the re­port cov­ered all the main bases, Uber should have gone even fur­ther given its self-driv­ing car killed Herzberg, said Bryant Walker Smith, an as­sis­tant law pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of South Carolina who has been study­ing the is­sues af­fect­ing au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles. In its most glar­ing omis­sion, Uber didn’t ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for Herzberg’s death — the first in­volv­ing a fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle, he said.

“Frankly, I’m look­ing for more from Uber than from other com­pa­nies, and I sus­pect that gov­ern­ments may be as well,” Walker Smith said.

Un­der Penn­syl­va­nia’s vol­un­tary au­ton­o­mous guide­lines, the Trans­porta­tion De­part­ment has un­til Nov. 13 to ap­prove or deny Uber’s ap­pli­ca­tion, or to ask fur­ther ques­tions.

Penn­syl­va­nia law at present doesn’t al­low test­ing of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles with­out hu­man backup driv­ers. Google’s Waymo al­ready is car­ry­ing pas­sen­gers in the Phoenix area with­out hu­man driv­ers, and Gen­eral Mo­tors’ Cruise Au­to­ma­tion ex­pects to do that next year.

Pitts­burgh of­fi­cials can’t legally pre­vent test­ing, but they are in safety talks with Uber and four other en­ti­ties that have per­mits to test au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, said Ka­rina Ricks, the city’s di­rec­tor of the De­part­ment of Mo­bil­ity and In­fra­struc­ture.

For in­stance, the city wants to limit self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle speeds to 25 miles per hour in ur­ban set­tings, even if the posted speed is higher.

“Lower rates of speed give more time for the ve­hi­cle and the safety driver to re­act and pre­vent a crash,” said Ricks, who char­ac­ter­ized the talks as fruit­ful.

Pitts­burgh is home to Uber’s au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle de­vel­op­ment cen­ter, mak­ing it a log­i­cal choice for the re­sump­tion of ro­botic car tests.

“We are en­gag­ing with the city, with the of­fi­cials, and are very ea­ger, I think, to en­sure that we make a re­turn to the road in self-driv­ing mode in con­sul­ta­tion and close part­ner­ship with them,” said Miriam Chaum, head of pub­lic pol­icy for Uber’s self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles.

Later it will dis­cuss bring­ing its self-driv­ing cars back to Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia and Toronto, On­tario, its other test sites. Ari­zona sus­pended the com­pany’s per­mis­sion to test af­ter the crash.

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