Uber Driverless Cars Back on Roads Less Than a Year After Deadly Crash

Photo: Uber

Uber’s driverless cars are cruising around Pittsburg again, returning from their hiatus following a fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona.

That self-driving test car struck and killed a cyclist on March 13—little more than nine months ago. A backup driver was behind the wheel, but police reports show they were streaming The Voice at the time of the collision. A week before the crash, an Uber employee, Robbie Miller, reportedly warned company executives in an email about safety concerns.

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Uber’s head of advanced technologies Eric Meyhofer announced in a blog post on Thursday that its driverless cars began driving on public roads again.

The company received permission to test autonomous cars in Pittsburg from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation earlier this week.

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When reached for comment, a company spokesperson referred Gizmodo to Meyhofer’s blog, which highlights safeguards the company announced in July, safety reviews, and a safety report. “This required a lot of introspection and took some time,” Meyhofer writes. “Now we are ready to move forward.”

Uber says starting today each test car will have two human operators prepared to take control in emergencies, and drivers will work in four-hour shifts. Previously, these operators worked eight- to 10-hour shifts. The company says it has also added cameras that make an audible alert when they detect distracted drivers, and reports them to a monitor team. These cars aren’t permitted to take passengers.

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Back in March, Uber’s self-driving cars were reportedly driving up to 55 mph. Now, they are only supposed to go up to 25 mph, according to a report from the New York Times. The Times reports that the cars will drive on a circuit in the busy Pittsburgh’s Strip District, but only during weekdays when the sun is up.

In the aforementioned warning email that an Uber manager sent to executives, he mentioned reports of the “dangerous behavior” of backup drivers. Miller’s email mentioned routine accidents:

This is usually the result of poor behavior of the operator or the AV technology. A car was damaged nearly every other day in February. We shouldn’t be hitting things every 15,000 miles. Repeated infractions for poor driving rarely results in termination. Several of the drivers appear to not have been properly vetted or trained.

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Uber’s autonomous cars also started driving in Toronto and San Francisco on Thursday, but Uber says the cars will only be operated in manual mode by human drivers—for the purpose of teaching the system scenarios it will face when the cars are free of their human masters.

[Uber, the New York Times, Bloomberg]

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Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo