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Uber Resumes Testing On Pittsburgh Roads, But The Cars Aren’t Calling The Shots

Sarah Kovash

A handful of Uber’s autonomous vehicles returned to city streets Tuesday, but self-driving mode has been disabled. Instead, each car is being piloted the old-fashioned way: by a human driver with both hands on the wheel. The move comes as Pennsylvania issues new guidance for highly autonomous vehicles.

In March, Uber grounded operations at all its testing locations—Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Tempe, Ariz. and Toronto—after a car in self-driving mode struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe; that location has since been shut down. The company's permit to test in California expired at the end of March. An Uber spokesperson said the company has not yet applied to renew that permit, but remains in regular contact with officials, while the future of operations in Toronto is yet to be determined.  

Tuesday’s reboot is therefore limited to Pittsburgh and will focus on accruing more manual miles. After an internal safety review, the company opted for a gradual return to testing to demonstrate that the company prioritizes safety, the spokesperson said.

City and state officials confirmed Uber notified them of its plans to resume operations. Tim McNulty, spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto, said the administration will continue to work with Uber on safety initiatives.

“Mayor Peduto ... appreciates the company restarting operations in manual mode to be extra careful on Pittsburgh streets," McNulty said.

Today, PennDOT issued its suggested oversight regulations for highly automated vehicles, which come after months of meetings between state officials and self-driving car companies, secretary Leslie Richards said in a statement.

“While we await legislative action on our request for permanent authorization, our new guidance underscores our expectation that companies are taking every possible step to prepare their vehicles and personnel for on-the-road testing," Richards said in the statement.

The state asks that all companies submit a “Notice of Testing” by Aug. 1, with basic contact information for the company, expected testing area and a risk mitigation plan, among other details. Despite PennDOT’s request, the regulations remain voluntary until the state house passes a new law.

Uber’s vehicles will now be driven by pairs of “mission specialists," who receive courses in both defensive and distracted driving and complete situational drills at Uber’s test tracks.

The switch began with Uber’s announcement earlier this month that it was laying off 100 self-driving operators, many of them in Pittsburgh. Those employees were told they could apply for the 55 new mission specialist positions. Those jobs have yet to be posted publicly in order to give former operators a chance to apply, the spokesperson said.

Testing in Pittsburgh will be conducted mostly in the Strip District. While autonomous mode is unavailable, the Volvos' built-in emergency braking system will be. The driver will focus on the road while the passenger will note any obstacles or challenges through a tablet interface. The idea is to limit distractions as much as possible, the spokesperson said. Shifts will remain either eight or 10 hours long, but the two people will switch roles throughout the day to stave off monotony.

In addition, the company said it will begin remote video monitoring of its drivers, using what the Uber official described as off-the-shelf technology. If an operator’s attention begins to wane, it will trigger an audio alert for the driver, as well as notify someone in an operations center in either Pittsburgh or San Francisco. The employee behind the wheel during the Arizona crash was streaming a television show moments before impact.

Uber wants to make transportation safer by eliminating one of the biggest factors in accidents: human error. But to do so requires the close attention of the humans behind the wheel. The system is imperfect in its current state, a spokesperson acknowledged, since all humans get distracted. But the company hopes to identify the flaws of drivers and build technology to address them.

Uber aims to resume autonomous vehicle testing within the next six months, a spokesperson said.