Uber taking cautious approach on return to self-driving cars

Dara Khosrowshahi (right), Uber CEO, walks with Egypt's Minister of Investment and International Cooperation, Sahar Nasr, after a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, Dec 4, 2018.
Dara Khosrowshahi (right), Uber CEO, walks with Egypt's Minister of Investment and International Cooperation, Sahar Nasr, after a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, Dec 4, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO • Uber Technologies is plotting the return of its self-driving cars, but the company known for its hard-charging style is taking a much more conservative approach as it tries to recover from a fatal accident that upended its autonomous vehicle programme.

After it receives approval from the state of Pennsylvania, Uber plans to begin driving "a handful" of cars on a mile loop between two company offices in Pittsburgh, where Uber first debuted its autonomous vehicles in 2016, Uber spokesman Sarah Abboud said.

That would mark Uber's first self-driving car tests on public streets since it halted its operations nearly nine months ago in the wake of a crash in Arizona that killed a pedestrian.

The diminutive launch is a dramatic downsize from Uber's previous operation. The company in the past unleashed its fleet in autonomous mode on public roads at high speeds, after dark, in areas crowded with pedestrians and with a single backup driver in the front seat.

This time, the cars will not operate at night or in wet weather, and will not exceed speeds of 25 miles (40km) an hour, Ms Abboud said. Two employees will sit in the front seats, and the company has no plans to resume picking up passengers in the robot cars, a service Uber launched in 2016.

The New York Times first reported on Uber's plans on Wednesday. Ms Abboud said Uber was awaiting approval from Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation and would not begin testing before then. She said there was no firm start date.

In March, the authorities in Arizona suspended Uber's ability to test its self-driving cars after one of its cars hit and killed a woman crossing the street at night in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, Uber's largest testing hub. Uber also voluntarily halted its entire autonomous car testing programme.

 
 

Resuming an autonomous driving programme is crucial. Uber has a deal with Volvo to purchase up to 24,000 cars, and recently Toyota invested US$500 million (S$686 million) to develop self-driving cars with Uber.

Uber had pledged to start self-driving operations by this past summer in Pittsburgh, but the company faced immense pressure from regulators, federal investigators and an internal review of safety practices.

Last month, Uber released a safety report that outlined several changes, including enabling an automatic braking system and improving the cars' ability to quickly detect and react to objects on the road.

The US National Transportation Safety Board has an ongoing investigation into the Arizona crash, the findings of which are expected in a major report next year.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2018, with the headline 'Uber taking cautious approach on return to self-driving cars'. Print Edition | Subscribe