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Uber debuts a new self-driving car with more fail-safes

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Designed to be autonomous at the factory level, Uber and Volvo believe this version will be safer

Images: Uber

Uber just announced a third-generation version of its self-driving car, developed in partnership with Volvo. The new XC90 SUV will be built to fit Uber’s self-driving technology at the factory level, instead of needing to be retrofitted like previous versions of the car. Uber will start testing the new car on public roads in 2020.

This time around, Uber and Volvo are building more redundancy into the vehicle. The car will still have a steering wheel and pedals, but Uber says it’s been designed to ultimately operate without a human behind the wheel. With that in mind, the companies built multiple redundant backup systems into the vehicle, specifically around steering, braking, and battery power. “If any of the primary systems should fail for some reason, the back-up system is designed to immediately act to bring the car to a stop,” Uber says.

That means the new version of Uber’s self-driving car should ostensibly be safer than its predecessors, though we won’t ultimately know until the company puts it through its paces. It’s gotten a special vote of confidence from Volvo, though, because Uber says the Swedish automaker will use “a similar autonomous base vehicle concept” for its own commercial autonomous technology “in the early 2020s.”

Uber returned to testing its current-generation self-driving vehicles on public roads in December 2018, nine months after one struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing in front of the car. Uber’s car never stopped, or even slowed, before it hit Herzberg. The self-driving system spotted her, though there are conflicting reports of whether it flagged her as a “false positive.

The bigger problem was Uber had disabled Volvo’s automatic emergency braking system in order to “reduce potential for erratic vehicle behavior.” There was a safety driver behind the wheel who was supposed to be monitoring the road, but she was looking at her phone at the time, and didn’t brake until after Herzberg was hit. (Uber had previously cut the number of safety drivers in its test cars from two to one.) If the automatic emergency braking system had been enabled, the car may have stopped in time. Uber says it will not override or disable the automatic braking features of the new Volvo.

It wasn’t a given that Uber would continue working on self-driving cars. Arizona banned the company from testing following Herzberg’s death. Uber also laid off hundreds of safety drivers in both Arizona and Pittsburgh following the crash. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi reportedly considered ending the program at one point, but eventually reaffirmed his commitment to it during an interview with the Today show.

Now, self-driving cars are part of Uber’s ultimate goal to become the “one-stop shop for the movement of people and powering local commerce around the world,” according to Khosrowshahi. The new vehicle was unveiled at the third-annual Uber Elevate conference, where the company also showed off electric aircraft that will supposedly make up an air taxi service due in 2023, delivery drones, and of course, electric scooters.