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Uber ends self-driving operation in Arizona

Uber ends self-driving operation in Arizona


The company still plans to resume testing in other states

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Uber self-driving crash screen cap
Image: ABC 15

Uber has shuttered its self-driving testing program in Arizona and laid off close to 300 workers there — most of them test drivers, or “vehicle operators” — two months after one of its autonomous cars killed a pedestrian, the company said on Wednesday. The company had been testing its self-driving technology in the state since 2016, but halted operations in the wake of the March crash. The company’s testing was also indefinitely suspended by the Arizona governor’s office.

The crash is still currently being investigated by the Tempe police, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board. Uber reached a settlement with the family of the pedestrian, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, two weeks after the crash.

Uber says it still plans to restart its self-driving operations in other locations (like Pittsburgh or San Francisco) once the investigations into the Arizona crash are complete. But in those locations, Uber will “drive in a much more limited way,” according to an internal email obtained by ArsTechnica.

“We’re committed to self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the near future,” a spokesperson for Uber said in a statement to The Verge. “In the meantime, we remain focused on our top-to-bottom safety review, having brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture.”

Uber is one of a number of companies from both the tech and auto industries that have started testing their self-driving technology on public roads in recent years. States typically issue special licenses or exemptions for these companies in order to allow the testing of vehicles that operate themselves. Uber, which had originally skirted this requirement in California, began quietly testing in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona in 2016 before offering rides in the cars in early 2017.

In the time since it started testing there, though, pressure to beat other companies to market with a self-driving ride-hail service apparently led Uber to cut corners, according to multiple reports since the March crash. Uber scaled back the number of sensors it uses on its self-driving cars when it changed over from Ford Fusions to Volvo XC90s, according to The Guardian. The company also reduced the number of vehicle operators, or “safety drivers,” in each car from two to one, a move that some employees reportedly worried would increase risk, according to The New York Times.

Uber has not publicly stated why its test car was unable to avoid Herzberg, citing the ongoing investigations. A recent report in The Information stated that the problem had to do with Uber’s software. Two sources told the outlet that the car’s sensors reportedly picked up Herzberg, who was crossing the street at the time, but the software may have flagged the identification as a “false positive,” and so the car took no action. The lone safety driver in the car was seen looking down in the moments before the car hit Herzberg in footage released by the Tempe Police Department.