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How Many Operators Are In That Self-Driving Uber?

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Probably just one.

Pittsburghers have gotten used to the sight of self-driving cars from various companies cruising the streets: there’s Argo AI, Delphi, Aurora, and of course, Uber. But there’s something different about Uber these days.

When Uber’s shiny self-driving Volvos hit Pittsburgh’s streets in 2016, there were two operators up front: One to monitor the road and the other to monitor information as the cars collected it.

But these days, if you peer closely at the cars’ cockpits, you’ll likely see just one human.

The operator riding shotgun used to annotate data on a laptop as the cars collected it, but that’s often no longer necessary, said Uber’s Sarah Abboud, because the company has built a new iPad interface.

“That allows vehicle operators to input important data as things take place in the car,” she said. “Say for example the car kicks out of autonomy...the operator can then input why they believe that to have happened when they are, say, at a stop sign or a stop light or in a safe position to do so.”

Abboud said the change is not a safety hazard, as vehicle operators undergo rigorous training to ensure no one inside or outside the vehicle is put at risk. 

The company’s operations are growing, and they’re trying to become more efficient, said Abboud.

“We are building cars every single day. So as we build those vehicles, to better use the set of vehicle operators we do have, rather than hiring on a ton more, we’re just able to put a single individual in the car,” she said.

Abboud would not say how many vehicle operators are in Pittsburgh, but said there are 200 self-driving vehicles across all of Uber’s testing sites: Pittsburgh, Phoenix, San Francisco and Toronto.

Uber is currently building its next generation of self-driving vehicles. The white Volvos do not yet carry the company’s branding. As the company tests new hardware or software configurations, two vehicle operators are present.