Uber Replacing AV Driver Job With Specialist Role

Uber has terminated about 100 autonomous vehicle operators in Pittsburgh and plans to put more advanced technical specialists behind the wheel instead.

The company’s latest move to revamp its AV program, reported by news site Quartz and confirmed by Uber, comes as the fledgling AV industry recognizes the value of having highly trained onboard operators involved in testing and development.

Uber is restarting its AV efforts after suspending tests for several months following the fatal Tempe, Ariz., crash involving an Uber self-driving prototype in March. In that incident, the driver of a partially self-driving Volvo XC90 SUV was found to have been looking away from the road until just before the vehicle struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old pedestrian who was walking her bike across the road.

The company has also conducted an internal safety review that covered both system safety and operator training.

“Our team remains committed to building safe self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the coming months,” an Uber spokesperson told The Connected Car via email.

Pittsburgh is among the first cities where Uber plans to resume AV tests beginning this summer. In May, the company shut down its self-driving operations in Arizona and said it would concentrate them around its engineering centers in California, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

Uber informed the Pittsburgh drivers at a meeting on July 11 that the position of autonomous vehicle operator was being eliminated. The driving jobs will be replaced by about 55 positions for “mission specialists.” Those specialists will be trained in both on-road and closed-track testing and will give prompt, meaningful feedback to AV developers, Uber said. The drivers who were laid off would be allowed to apply for the new jobs or for other positions at the company.

Uber’s renewed focus on the onboard component of AV development reflects a reversal of its strategy before the Arizona crash. At that point, Uber had cut back from two safety drivers per vehicle to just one.

Also, according to federal investigators studying the crash, it had left the lone driver of the SUV responsible for reacting to sudden obstacles even while the vehicle was doing most of the driving. An automatic emergency braking feature that came with the SUV was turned off while in autonomous mode to prevent erratic driving. It could detect obstacles but had no way to alert the driver.

The driver involved in the crash, Rafaela Vasquez, turned the wheel just before impact, but it was too late, a police report said. Had she been paying attention, she would have been able to stop the vehicle before hitting Herzberg, the report said. It also said Vasquez had streamed video to her phone until shortly before the crash.

The role of drivers in AV development took the spotlight Wednesday afternoon at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco, where the CEO of self-driving truck startup Embark recommended high standards for operators. “Drivers should not be thought of as accessories,” CEO Alex Rodrigues said. Embark hires experienced professional truck drivers, gives them extensive training and closely monitors their performance, he said.

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

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