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Uber seeks permission to resume self-driving car testing on public roads

Uber seeks permission to resume self-driving car testing on public roads


The company released its voluntary safety report in a bid to resurrect its AV testing program

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Uber is seeking permission from the state of Pennsylvania to resume testing its self-driving cars on public roads more than seven months after a fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona.

The ride-hailing company released its voluntary safety report to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Friday, becoming the sixth company to do so. In it, Uber commits to resuming testing with two employees in each autonomous vehicle, enabling automatic braking, and strictly monitoring safety drivers. The company said it now has real-time third-party monitoring of backup safety drivers, sets limits on the amount of time drivers can work per day, and has improved training.

“We are now able to detect objects and actors sooner and execute safe reactions faster.”

Uber said a key recommendation of an internal review after the Tempe crash was to improve the “overall software system design” of its self-driving vehicles. The ride-hailing company’s cars now have improved “system latency. We are now able to detect objects and actors sooner and execute safe reactions faster,” Uber says in its report.

A Volvo SUV equipped with Uber’s self-driving hardware and software struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg last March. The vehicle was not using its factory-built automatic braking feature and only had one safety driver inside. Police said that the driver had been streaming The Voice on her phone at the time of the crash, which investigators deemed “entirely avoidable.”

The crash was the first death attributed to a self-driving car, and it was seen as a significant setback for the industry, which is racing to get autonomous vehicles into commercial use.

Uber self-driving crash screen cap
Image: ABC 15

In a preface to the report, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company was “deeply regretful” for the crash and would be adopting a policy of transparency and open communication with the public in an effort to earn back trust.

The competitive pressure to build and market self-driving technology may lead developers to stay silent on remaining development challenges. At Uber, we believe there is extraordinary value in sharing operational safety approaches and coordinating with others in the industry to develop methods to measure and demonstrate the progress in self-driving development.

(In an interview with The Verge last May, Khosrowshahi downplayed transparency, saying, “Right now my focus is not about transparency. It’s just to get it right.”)

uber is “deeply regretful”

In July, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation issued guidance for safety oversight of highly automated vehicles. The voluntary guidance directs self-driving companies to submit a “notice of testing.” The state will collect data on a semiannual basis, including the approximate miles traveled by a company’s automated vehicles in the state. Around that same time, Uber’s self-driving cars returned to the streets of Pittsburgh, albeit in manual mode only.

The state said after it approves submissions, it will send companies “an authorization letter.” Uber said it will not resume testing until it receives that letter.

“We briefed both government and non-government stakeholders of our plans to release our safety report,” a spokesperson said. “We also provided a high level overview of what it would cover. Both the City of Pittsburgh and PennDOT were involved in these overview conversations, so they are aware of our report and our hopes to return to the road once our remaining key safety improvements have been implemented.”

“our hopes to return to the road”

One example of a “remaining key safety improvement” is “passing specific sets of simulated road tests, repeatably, on our test track,” the spokesperson added.

In addition to the voluntary safety report, Uber also released a summary of the company’s internal and external reviews as well as an external report on the safety culture at Uber’s advanced technologies division that was conducted by law firm LeClairRyan. 

Uber is only the sixth company to release its safety report under the voluntary guidelines created by the US Department of Transportation. Others include Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet; General MotorsFord Motor Companyself-driving delivery startup Nuro; and Nvidia. The vast majority of companies developing self-driving technology have yet to release their reports.