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City And State Officials Say Safety Is Their Top Priority For Self-Driving Cars

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
One of Uber's self-driving vehicles at the company's Pittsburgh offices.

Uber’s self-driving car operations remain on pause while authorities in Arizona investigate the fatal crash that occurred in Tempe last week. One of the company’s vehicles was in autonomous mode when it struck and killed a woman. Pittsburgh is one of four sites—along with Tempe, San Francisco and Toronto—where Uber tests its autonomous technology.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he will wait to see a full report on the incident before advocating for any changes in Pennsylvania. While he’s concerned about safety, he said autonomous vehicles will ultimately reduce the number of people killed each year in car accidents.

“There’s an inherent risk in our public right of ways that we can improve upon, we can make better,” he said. “But it’s going to take time and unfortunately, there will be some shortfalls in that process.”

Uber is one of several companies testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Peduto said he expects to see even more companies locate here in the near future.

“Every company in the world is moving to shared, electric, autonomous and connected vehicles,” he said.

Peduto added that most vehicular fatalities are caused by humans driving cars, not smart cars. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 37,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2016, the latest year for which data are available.

This week, Arizona’s governor ordered Uber’s self-driving cars off the state’s roads, though the company had already halted testing. PennDOT does not have the power to take similar action, because in Pennsylvania the cars are already governed by the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, according to Governor Tom Wolf’s press secretary, J.J. Abbott. That code requires that “a human driver be behind the wheel and responsible for control of the vehicle at all times,” he said in an email.

The New York Times reports that for months preceding last week’s crash, Uber’s self-driving cars struggled to navigate obstacles on the road without human intervention. In addition, the company’s operators were “being asked to do more — going on solo runs when they had worked in pairs.”

Before Uber’s operations were suspended, operators in Pittsburgh’s self-driving vehicles were also sometimes conducting solo trips. At the time, a spokesperson told WESA that the change was not a safety hazard, as vehicle operators were given rigorous training to ensure no one inside or outside the vehicle was put at risk.

News of this month’s fatal crash comes nearly one year after Uber paused operations as the result of a different Arizona crash. In March 2017, one of the company's self-driving SUVs stuck another vehicle. That incident did not result in serious injuries.

A 2017 survey by Bike Pittsburgh, released around the same time, found many local pedestrians and cyclists have positive feelings toward self-driving cars, noting that autonomous vehicles obey traffic rules and don't text while driving. However, many of the cyclists surveyed noted that some cars weren't passing with the state-required 4 feet of distance and would like to see more regulations around self-driving cars passing cyclists.

PennDOT will work with Uber to ensure that any restart of testing is done with safety as the top priority, wrote Abbott.

An Uber spokesperson said the company-wide testing suspension is indefinite.