Self-driving vehicles

Uber’s self-driving fleet is back on Pittsburgh streets months after a fatal Arizona crash

The company announced big changes and new safety measures in advance.

Uber in the car
Jared Wickerham / for the incline

At noon today, Uber resumed testing its self-driving cars on public Pittsburgh streets following a fatal Arizona crash in March, but with, the company said, major changes and new safeguards in place.

“After the tragedy in Tempe, we launched a top-to-bottom review of our self-driving program with a focus on safety,” an embargoed statement from the company read. “Today, we are taking a first step towards bringing our self-driving vehicles back to public roadways in Pittsburgh.”

The company said a gradual and geographically limited resumption of testing here is underway, with policy changes in effect, including:

  • Vehicles have been equipped with new safeguards to monitor the alertness of operators — now called “mission specialists.”
  • Teams of specialists will swap the driver’s seat regularly during shifts to avoid fatigue. Two missions specialists will be in each car at all times.
  • Vehicles will remain in manual mode for the time being. That means specialists behind the wheel of Uber’s self-driving vehicles will maintain control and will not engage the autonomous systems, the company said. It’s unclear how long that policy will remain in effect. LIDAR sensors on top of the vehicle will still spin but the self-driving system in the vehicle will not be enabled, the company said.

As for why the company would bother returning self-driving vehicles to the roads here only to have them remain in manual mode, Uber said the mapping data collected by the vehicles will serve its autonomous testing operations going forward. It will also serve in the development of new training scenarios and test-driving simulations.

Consumer passengers will not be in the self-driving vehicles returning to the streets of Pittsburgh. The company did not provide a timetable for when that might resume. Uber said it’s focused now on ensuring its updates and new safeguards are working.

Among the new safeguards is a real-time driver monitoring system that alerts the driver with an audio cue if their eyes are taken off the road and also alerts an outside observer who can monitor the driver remotely.

Looking down at a phone is now a fireable offense.

This after it was reported that the operator behind the wheel of the Uber vehicle involved in the fatal Arizona crash was watching TV on a cellphone, instead of the watching road, when a woman pedestrian was struck and killed.

Uber has also reduced certain visual features inside its autonomous vehicles to remove additional distractions for mission specialists while a vehicle is operating.

An Uber spokesperson said mission specialists have undergone additional trainings with simulations “specifically focused on safe manual driving,” adding, “These modules include dedicated time in defensive and distracted driving courses, as well as improved test track situational awareness drills.”

Uber has also resumed testing on its Hazelwood test track, the company confirmed.

With the cars in manual mode, built-in collision avoidance systems are also operational now.

In Arizona, such a system detected the pedestrian killed up to six seconds before impact but did not slow or stop because the vehicle’s emergency braking systems were deliberately disabled, an NTSB investigation found. The collision avoidance and emergency braking systems in Uber’s self-driving fleet of Volvos are disabled while in autonomous mode, TechCrunch reported.

Infamous for skirting rules and attempting to soften or quash regulations, Uber’s cautious re-launch in Pittsburgh reveals a more careful and deliberate company — and certainly that’s the point from a PR perspective. It’s unclear, though, if this approach will overcome the skepticism of some in the public and some in City Hall.

Earlier this year, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, an early champion of the company and a big reason it launched its public-facing self-driving fleet here in 2016, expressed skepticism of Uber’s plan to return self-driving cars to the roads of Pittsburgh on the heels of the fatal Arizona collision.

Peduto also announced new suggested guidelines for autonomous vehicle operators here, including a proposed 25 mile-per-hour speed limit. Such guidelines are voluntary and essentially unenforceable until state lawmakers pass regulations on autonomous vehicle testing, TribLive reported.

Asked about Peduto’s 25 mph suggested restriction, Uber said it doesn’t apply to its manual testing of self-driving vehicles in the city anyway. That’s because, for the time being at least, Uber said its testing will be conducted on roads with lower limits.

The cars are currently operating in and around the company’s ATC facility in the Strip District and are relegated there for now by the company. Other self-driving car companies have continued to test in Pittsburgh while Uber was on hiatus.

In an emailed statement, mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty said Uber has kept Peduto updated on the company’s plans and that the mayor “appreciates the company restarting operations in manual mode to be extra careful on Pittsburgh streets.” The statement adds, “[Peduto] and fellow administration officials will continue to work with the company on safety initiatives.”

Uber added via phone call with The Incline, “We are closely working with the mayor and PennDOT. We won’t be on high speed roads [in Pittsburgh] any time soon. And we are also waiting for PennDOT to issue its latest autonomous vehicle guidance.”

How we got here

Uber paused its testing, both on-road and on the test track, after a self-driving vehicle struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg who was walking across the street outside of the crosswalk on March 18 in Tempe, Ariz. The company had paused testing in Pittsburgh before, but it was never longer than a few hours or days.

A police report later revealed that safety driver of the autonomous Uber, Rafaela Vasquez, was watching “The Voice” moments before the crash, AZ Central reported.

Since that crash, Uber let its testing permit in California expire and laid off its self-driving car team in Arizona. However, the company made it clear that it planned to return to testing in Pittsburgh, the city where it first launched a pilot in September 2016 to have users of the Uber ride-share app in autonomous vehicles.

On July 11, Quartz reported the company was laying off 100 self-driving vehicle operators in favor of hiring 55 mission specialists for its autonomous division. Like the 100 vehicle operators, a majority of the mission specialists will be in Pittsburgh, according to the company.

In a phone call with The Incline, a company spokesperson was unsure how many of the mission specialist roles had been filled. The listings have not yet been opened to the public but could be in the future if it “makes sense” to do so. Uber opened the new positions to laid-off vehicle operators first.

“We’re taking a more conscientious and deliberate approach to getting back on the road here and want to make sure we’re properly vetting all people,” the spokesperson said.

The difference between the two roles is that the mission specialists will operate the vehicles both on the test track and on the streets, while before those were different roles. The mission specialist will also have more technical responsibilities, per Quartz.

Self-driving regulations

Following the fatal Arizona crash, there was a resurgence of calls for regulating self-driving car testing in Pennsylvania. Currently, the only state law that applies to autonomous vehicle testing says there must be a licensed driver in the driver’s seat. That law, however, does not specify if the driver has to touch the wheel or the pedals.

At the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit in April, Secretary Leslie S. Richards announced a new plan that included giving PennDOT interim oversight of autonomous vehicle testing. That included voluntary guidelines and plans for PennDOT to meet with all the testers in the state. One such meeting was canceled as the state continues to work on those guidelines, PennDOT confirmed.

The guidelines are meant to be a holdover until legislation can be passed.

In May, Peduto said he was not pleased to learn via the news about Uber’s plans to start testing again. (Uber, however, said that’s not true and that the company was in communication with the city.)

It reignited a feud between the mayor and the company that was in repair since a tense start to 2017 when Peduto told The Incline he was disappointed in Uber. By September, the mayor said the relationship was improving, only for it to be tested again following the Arizona incident.

In May, Peduto said he had requirements for testing to resume. According to a statement from the mayor, they were:

  • Automated vehicles would never exceed 25 miles per hour in the city, on any street, regardless of legal speed limits.
  • The company would use its driver app to alert human drivers when they exceed speed limits, so human drivers adhere, as well.

The mayor later added several suggestions including discounts for senior citizens going to medical appointments, food delivery to the homeless, and auto-mechanic training for potential Uber employees, WPXI reported.