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Despite Laying Off Its Operators, Uber Says Autonomous Vehicles Will Resume Local Testing

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Engineers from Uber sit inside one of their self-driving cars during a demonstration at the Strip District research facility.

Despite laying off 100 self-driving car operators last week, Uber said it still plans to have its autonomous vehicles back on Pittsburgh's roads this summer.

The company suspended testing after a self-driving Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. earlier this year. It had hoped to restart local testing in late June.

An Uber spokesperson said the layoffs were made to help with self-driving testing and development. The 100 eliminated positions are being replaced with 55 new, more technical ones. The same people will now operate the cars on both public roads and test tracks – previously, these were two separate teams.

The change, Uber said, is part of its focus on finding technical experts who can provide more comprehensive feedback on the technology. The move follows the company’s internal safety audit, which Uber declined to talk about.

Uber is one of several autonomous vehicle companies working with state officials to craft new regulations for self-driving cars. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards said more than 94 percent of fatalities on the roads are caused by human error, and that self-driving cars could offer a solution.

“It’s a competitive industry and we know that, but we have made it clear that it must be a safe industry,” she said. “So we have to be open – it will solve some problems with human drivers, but there may be others that we have to look at.”

Richards said she was not aware of the potential role false positives, which occur when self-driving car software misidentifies objects, played in the Arizona crash. Uber declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to the agency’s preliminary report released in late May, Uber’s software detected the pedestrian six seconds before impact and first identified her as another vehicle and then a bicycle. The victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was pushing a bicycle as she crossed the street.

In May, Uber terminated its self-driving operations in Arizona. The cars have already been transferred, and self-driving teams will now only operate in Pittsburgh and San Francisco once they begin again.

Mayor Bill Peduto said at the time that he and the head of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure told Uber its cars would be limited to 25 mph within the city, no matter the posted speed limit. He also requested that the company’s app for drivers alert them when they exceed that limit.

The company said the planned return to testing would be limited and that not all 200 cars would immediately be back on the road. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in January he wanted fully unmanned taxis serving paying customers in Pittsburgh by mid-2019. 

Jakob Lazzaro is a digital producer at WESA. He comes to Pittsburgh from South Bend, Ind., where he worked as the senior reporter and assignment editor at WVPE and had fun on-air hosting local All Things Considered two days a week, but he first got to know this area in 2018 as an intern at WESA (and is excited to be back). He graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 and has also previously reported for CalMatters and written NPR's Source of the Week email newsletter.
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