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Uber’s self-driving cars head to Dallas, but they’ll be driven in manual mode

Uber is taking its self-driving cars to Dallas, Texas, though at the start the company won’t be testing them in autonomous mode.

Instead, beginning in early November, its Volvo SUVs will be operated manually during outings to collect data to help it build the high-definition maps used for its self-driving system, the company said in a blog post on Tuesday.

The trips will also enable Uber’s autonomous-car team to capture everyday scenarios from the street that can then be recreated in simulation as well as on its test track.

“Dallas also offers us the opportunity to explore a different type of road network for our self-driving technology,” the San Francisco-based company said in its post. “The city’s modern infrastructure, unique traffic patterns, road characteristics, and climate will offer new information that can inform our ongoing engineering efforts.”

Tentative steps toward full testing

Uber’s arrival in Dallas marks the latest in a series of tentative steps toward the restart of full testing since its operation was suspended in March 2018 when one of its cars knocked down and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. The vehicle had a safety driver behind the wheel, but both the technology and the safety driver failed to spot Herzberg as she crossed the street at night.

Before then, Uber had been 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.

In December 2018, eight months after the Tempe incident, Uber announced it had been given permission by officials to restart autonomous testing in Pittsburgh, but in a significantly scaled-back fashion. For example, it said its self-driving cars would stick to a loop of just one mile, close to where Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) has its base, and travel no faster than 25 mph. In a further nod to its safety efforts, the cars would travel with two safety drivers onboard instead of one.

Uber said that in Dallas, its Volvo SUVs may be tested in autonomous mode later on, but no dates have been set.

The Tempe tragedy was a massive setback for the company’s efforts to develop its autonomous technology, and since then it’s been moving forward at a slow pace compared to the likes of Waymo, which has been testing self-driving trips with paying passengers in Arizona since the end of 2018.

Uber said in its post that in order to reach its goal of creating a full-fledged self-driving system for use in its ridesharing service, it must “approach building this technology thoughtfully and with a strong sense of responsibility to the communities where we operate, which our team is dedicated to doing every day.”

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Trevor Mogg
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