Uber is about to restart self-driving car tests but on a reduced scale

More details are emerging about Uber’s plan to restart its autonomous-car program. The company suspended operations in March 2018 following a fatal accident involving one of its self-driving vehicles.

Testing is scheduled to begin again within weeks, though on a significantly reduced scale, the company told the NY Times

Uber said it plans to operate its autonomous cars along a mile-long route between two of its offices in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the vehicles traveling no faster than 25 mph. In addition, the cars will stay off the road in wet weather and at night. The company will also increase the number of safety personnel inside the vehicle from one to two.

Before the March accident in which an Uber test car knocked down and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she crossed the street in Tempe, Arizona, Uber was operating its self-driving program in four cities; three in the U.S., and one in Canada. The autonomous cars drove at speeds of up to 55 mph, and also operated at night and in various weather conditions.

When Ms. Herzberg was struck, the Uber car was traveling at 39 mph at night and its technology failed to spot her in the road ahead. The safety driver is believed to have been streaming a TV show on her phone. Local police described the incident as “entirely avoidable.”

Permission from Pennsylvania

To enable the restart of Uber’s trial program, the San Francisco-based company has had to get permission from Pennsylvania state officials, and also submit a voluntary report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration detailing all of the safety improvements that it has incorporated into its autonomous-car technology. In July, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation tightened up its guidelines for autonomous-car testing, resulting in companies being told to submit more detailed information about their operations on the state’s roads.

Besides the tragedy in March, the NY Times’ report points to a slew of other issues that appear to have plagued Uber’s autonomous-car program. Information from a number of current and former employees, as well as internal documents and emails seen by the news outlet, suggest that Uber’s cars had until recently been experiencing problems with the software that powers them.

But with the cars set to return to Pennsylvania’s public roads in the coming weeks, local officials must have been satisfied that Uber has adequately dealt with all outstanding issues and that it will be testing the vehicles within the technology’s limits.

As the company works to get its autonomous-car program back on track, competitor Waymo scored a big win this week when it became the first company in the U.S. to launch a full-fledged robot taxi service, charging for rides in its autonomous vehicles in and around Phoenix, Arizona.

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