Uber Leaves Arizona to Move AV Testing Closer to Its Engineers

Uber is shutting down its tests of both self-driving cars and autonomous trucks in Arizona because it doesn’t have engineering facilities there and wants its engineers to be available to ride in test vehicles, an Uber spokesperson said.

News of the shutdown in Arizona, which follows a months-long suspension of testing at all North American sites, emerged after Uber laid off about 300 employees in the state on May 23. That move was first reported by The Arizona Republic.

Uber’s latest chapter in Arizona highlights the risks both companies and lawmakers face with the fledgling technology.

San Francisco-based Uber moved AV testing out of its home state in 2016 after clashing with California regulators. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey opened the door to Uber by establishing relatively lax oversight for self-driving vehicles. But after a self-driving Uber SUV killed a pedestrian in Tempe in March, Ducey suspended the company’s permit and Uber temporarily halted all its public testing in the US and Canada.

The crash is still under investigation.

Uber hopes to restart AV testing on public roads soon, but only around its engineering hubs in Pittsburgh, Toronto and California. It wants to have engineers on site to go along on self-driving test rides, which wasn’t possible in Arizona.

It’s common for AV companies to put engineers in test vehicles to take notes and look for ways to make the cars smarter. Uber cars in Arizona had backup drivers, and the company reportedly had cut back from two backup drivers to one in the course of testing. In-car video of the Tempe accident appeared to show a single backup driver who was not watching the road when the crash occurred.

Uber’s goal is to resume AV testing in Pittsburgh this summer, by which time it expects the National Transportation Safety Board to have released the preliminary results of its probe.

“We’re committed to self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the near future. In the meantime, we remain focused on our top-to-bottom safety review, having brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture,” an Uber representative wrote in an email.

In California, the company let its AV testing permit expire in March after the Tempe accident. But it has kept the lines of communication open with state and local officials, including in San Francisco and Sacramento, in preparation for a return to testing, the Uber spokesperson said.

Hardware, software and services companies are competing to put AVs on the road and get commercial operations off the ground, while some governments are working to attract companies that build the systems and sell services. As federal regulations remain stalled, states are instituting their own rules. Part of the draw is the possibility of attracting high-tech jobs, though in Arizona’s case, Uber’s move to the state apparently didn’t bring lucrative engineering positions.

Arizona remains one of the most welcoming states for AV testing, where several companies have put cars on the road, and Waymo is set to launch a commercial driverless ride service in the Phoenix area this year.

Uber will offer outplacement assistance to the laid-off workers. It still retains about 500 employees in Arizona to run its conventional ride-hailing business and is looking to add about 70 more.

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