Uber’s Self-Driving Fleet Returns to Pittsburgh Roads — With Drivers in Control

Uber Self-Driving Car
An Uber self-driving car in San Francisco. (Getty Images)

Uber’s self-driving cars returned July 24 to Pittsburgh’s streets four months after one of its autonomous SUVs hit and killed a woman crossing a street in Tempe, Ariz.

The Volvo SUVs will be in manual mode with a driver behind the wheel controlling all aspects of the vehicle, Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, wrote in a post on Medium.

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Meyhofer wrote that Uber plans to put the cars into self-driving mode in the coming months.

“While we are eager to resume testing of our self-driving system, we see manual driving as an important first step in piloting these safeguards and rebuilding trust and confidence in our commitment to safety,” Meyhofer wrote.

The drivers will pilot the cars around the city to collect mapping data and data that will be used to craft scenarios for the SUVs to test both on Uber’s test track in Hazelwood and in simulation. The cars will not pick up or drop off passengers, an Uber spokeswoman said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto appreciated the company starting in manual mode, said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for the mayor. McNulty said Uber has kept Peduto updated on its plans, and the mayor and his administration plan to continue to work with the company on safety initiatives.

Peduto has called for autonomous vehicles not to exceed 25 mph while testing on city streets. The Uber SUVs will follow posted speed limits as they operate in manual mode, and the company will continue to work with city and state officials as it reintroduces self-driving, a company spokeswoman said.

Uber grounded its self-driving fleets in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto and Tempe in March when one of its SUVs killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she walked her bike across a dark Tempe street. The safety driver behind the wheel of the SUV, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, was streaming the television show “The Voice” just before the crash, and an investigation into the crash showed the car was going too fast for the conditions.

Uber completely shut down its self-driving operations in Tempe. The company conducted an internal safety review and cooperated in local and federal investigations. Uber laid off its team of vehicle operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco and rehired a portion of them as mission specialists, and safety drivers were given additional training and responsibilities.

One mission specialist will be driving a Volvo SUV in manual mode and a second will be in the passenger seat. Uber took the second employee out of most of its cars in September.

The cars now have a driver monitoring system installed that detects inattentive behavior and alerts the driver and someone externally monitoring the car. The collision avoidance systems installed in the cars will be active, and Uber has tried to minimize distractions from the tablet mounted in the center console. The mission specialists received training in defensive and distracted driving.

The drivers and passengers also will switch roles periodically during a shift to avoid fatigue.

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