Uber is returning to public roads in Pittsburgh nine months after an Uber self-driving car struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. However, Uber's new testing program will be massively scaled back from the one it had a year ago.
At the start of 2018, Uber had an extensive testing program that operated in both the Pittsburgh and Phoenix metropolitan areas. Dozens of Uber cars were driving around both cities, racking up more than two million miles of testing under the supervision of safety drivers.
But the whole program came screeching to a halt in March, when a malfunctioning Uber car crashed into Herzberg. In-car video seemed to show the safety driver glancing down at her lap for several seconds before the crash; records later revealed that she was streaming a television show on her phone at the time.
The March crash came after warnings from at least one Uber testing manager that the company was not taking safety seriously enough. "A car was damaged nearly every other day in February," Uber's Robbie Miller wrote in an email to several senior leaders of Uber's self-driving program just days before Herzberg's death. "We shouldn’t be hitting things every 15,000 miles."
Uber shut down its testing program nationwide, and the company wound up completely dismantling its Arizona testing program and laying off most of its safety drivers in Pittsburgh and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Uber rehired some of these drivers and gave them more training on safe operation of the vehicles. Now, months later, Uber is slowly rolling out a new, much more modest testing program.
The Verge reports that initially, "Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUVs will be confined to a one-mile loop around Pittsburgh’s Strip District, where the company’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) is headquartered." Uber will only have two vehicles on the road at first, with a safety driver in the driver's seat and a second Uber employee monitoring the car from the passenger seat. The cars will initially have a top speed of 25mph.
Uber's engineers will need to work hard to regain the ground they lost over the last nine months; however, Uber's competitors seem to be struggling as well.
A Tesla customer with Autopilot enabled died in a crash later the same month as Uber's deadly crash. Later in the year, Tesla stopped selling its "full self-driving" upgrade, seemingly an admission that the company was nowhere close to shipping the capability.
Meanwhile, Waymo, long seen as an industry leader, did not reach its previously stated goal of launching a public, fully driverless taxi service by the end of 2018. Instead earlier this month Waymo launched a service with safety drivers behind the wheel that was only open to people already in its closed testing program.