Just over eight months after one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation has given the company the green light to redeploy its fleet in Pittsburgh, the city where its Advanced Technologies Group — the division responsible for the bulk of its driverless vehicle research — is primarily based.
The Information earlier today reported that the agency had approved Uber’s petition to resume driverless tests, which it submitted in November, and a spokesperson confirmed some of the details in the report to The Verge this afternoon. Uber cautioned that it hadn’t begun the tests yet, however.
The Pennsylvania DOT issued new guidelines in July asking companies to submit details about their driverless systems testing. Only after plans are approved will it send “authorization letters,” it said at the time. Uber received its letter this week.
When the tests do resume, they’ll be at a significantly reduced scale. The company told The New York Times this month that its cars will operate along a mile-long route between two of its offices in Pittsburgh, and travel no faster than 25 miles per hour. They’ll also stay off the road in rainy weather and at night.
In the aftermath of the March crash, Uber halted self-driving tests in San Francisco, Toronto, and Pittsburgh shortly after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey suspended it from deploying cars in the state. More recently, it let go 100 of its autonomous vehicle operators, although it’s encouraging them to apply for new “mission specialist” jobs in Pittsburgh.
Uber started redeploying fleets of self-driving cars in the city late this summer, albeit with their autonomous systems disabled. In a blog post published in June, Eric Meyhofer, head of the Advanced Technologies Group, detailed newly implemented safeguards such as a second set of employees responsible for documenting “notable events,” a training program focused on safe manual driving, and aftermarket monitoring systems that sound an alarm and alert a remote monitor if a driver takes their eyes off the road.
The improvements came after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that Uber had disabled the automatic emergency braking system in the Volvo XC90 involved in May’s fatal crash. (In internal documents, the company said was to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior.”) The NTSB also found that the car’s perception system detected the victim about six seconds before impact, but that it didn’t determine emergency braking was needed until 1.3 seconds before impact.
According to a separate report from The Information, a former Uber manager raised concerns about its driverless cars’ road readiness in an email sent days before the accident
In a voluntary safety assessment filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Uber said that, with a separate systems engineering testing team, it’is better positioned “to reason over many possible outcomes to ultimately come to a safe response,” and will in the coming months form a self-driving safety advisory board of outside experts.
“At Uber, we believe that technology has the power to make transportation more efficient, accessible, and safer than ever before,” Meyhofer wrote. “Self-driving technology has the potential to make these benefits an everyday reality for our customers, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Building best-in-class self-driving technology will take time, and safety is our priority every step of the way.”
Uber is reportedly seeking to restart testing in San Francisco and perform new manually driven road tests in Toronto.
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