Uber Bids to Restart AV Tests in Pittsburgh, but Company Isn’t Rushing

More than six months after it halted tests of self-driving cars on public roads following a fatal crash, Uber is taking steps to resume its program.

The ride-sharing company has filed an application with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to conduct autonomous vehicle testing, company spokeswoman Sarah Abboud confirmed in an e-mail. The company has already put some AVs on the road in Pittsburgh, one of the centers of its AV development program, but only in manual mode.

It hasn’t indicated when autonomous tests will start.

“We will only return to the road once key safety improvements have been implemented, in addition to receiving the letter of authorization,” Abboud said.

The company outlined some changes in a voluntary safety report it released on November 2 in accordance with US Department of Transportation guidelines. For one thing, its cars now have two Mission Specialists on board, one behind the wheel and the other monitoring and taking notes. The car involved in the fatal March collision had just one safety driver, who allegedly was watching videos until just before the crash.

“We believe that operating with two Mission Specialists reduces workload and potential for fatigue, distraction, or misuse,” Uber noted in the document.

The Uber self-driving program has gone through major changes since that modified Volvo XC90 SUV struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, on March 18. The company stopped public road tests right after the crash, which is still being investigated. It also pulled the AV division, the Advanced Technologies Group, out of Arizona and shut down an autonomous truck program.

In August, The Information reported that Uber was considering transferring the AV group to another company in a deal that might give it access to that company’s self-driving cars. AV development costs have reached as much as $200 million per quarter while Uber has been losing money and trying to get itself in shape to go public next year, the report said. Last month, the Financial Times reported Uber was still considering a spinoff.

The change in tone and strategy is partly the result of a shake-up last year that brought in former Expedia chief Dara Khosrowshahi to replace founder Travis Kalanick as CEO. In place of Kalanick’s go-it-alone approach, Uber now says it’s forming partnerships to bring vehicles with other companies’ self-driving systems, as well as ones that run Uber’s, into its ride-hailing fleet.

All the cars in the company’s current AV fleet are Volvo XC90s with the Uber platform, which the safety report describes in some detail.

The current vehicles are equipped with Lidar, cameras, radar, GPS, custom telematics hardware and software, and a liquid-cooled self-driving computer that is custom to Uber’s system. In the next generation, Uber plans to add ultrasonic sensors around the car that use echolocation to better sense people and objects within five meters. They will help with stopping and starting, lane changing and parallel parking, Uber says. It will also add a Vehicle Interface Module with inertial measurement units to bring the car to a stop if aspects of the autonomy system fail.

Uber won’t be alone in Pittsburgh when it does resume testing. The city is home to Carnegie-Mellon University, a hotbed of AV research.

In July, Pennsylvania published guidelines for AV testing that called on companies to file a Notice of Testing and comply with a list of requirements, including having a safety driver on board and supplying the state with testing data. But they aren’t backed by legislation, so the state says it doesn’t know how many companies are carrying it out.

“The Guidance is in effect and we expect testers will comply with it, even though there is no legislation or regulations in place,” Transportation Department spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick told TU Automotive via e-mail.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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