Uber is Bringing its Self-Driving Cars to Washington D.C., with Humans Behind the Wheel
Ride-hailing company Uber is still working on its goal to add self-driving cars to its ride-hailing network. The company announced on Thursday that its bringing its self-driving vehicles to Washington D.C. The nation's capital will be the sixth major city where Uber is mapping and collecting data for its self-driving vehicles.
Uber said that its cars will be operated in manual driving mode, with a specially trained vehicle operator "maintaining control of the vehicle at all times." The vehicles will be primarily mapping and collecting data, which are the first steps to build high-definition maps of the city. These highly detailed maps are used by self-driving cars to navigate.
Uber says it mapping and data collection is the foundational information layer for its self-driving system. Once the data is collected, its used in computer simulation and on a closed test track to verify that the self-driving system performs as intended before being deployed on public roads.
"Our hope is that this first round of manually driven data collection will lay the foundation for testing our vehicles in self-driving mode in Washington, D.C." Uber wrote in a blog post.
Uber's deployment in Washington D.C., comes less than two years after one of its self-driving Volvo SUVs stuck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, where Uber was testing its self-driving vehicles. The incident was the first documented fatality involving a self-driving vehicle and cast a spotlight on the safety of self-driving vehicles being deployed on public roads.
Uber ordered a top to bottom safety review of its self-driving vehicles after the March 2018 accident that killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she was walking her bicycle across the road. The incident led to Uber shutting down all of its autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
After a thorough investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the agency blamed the fatal accident on the safety driver that was monitoring the vehicle, as well as on software that failed to identify the pedestrian and stop the vehicle. However, the NTSB publicly stated that Uber carried much of the blame.
The vehicle in Arizona was a Volvo XC90 SUV that Uber outfitted with its own self-driving hardware and software.
The NTSB said that Uber's autonomous system detected the pedestrian roughly 5.6 seconds before the impact. However, its on-board systems system to identify the pedestrian and did not properly predict her path.
The NTSA also said that Uber had an "inadequate safety culture" that led to the fatal accident. The company's "inadequate safety risk assessment procedures, ineffective oversight of the vehicle operators and a lack of adequate mechanisms for addressing operators' automation complacency" were also at fault.
In addition, when Uber retrofitted the Volvo SUV its engineers disabled the vehicle's factory installed emergency braking system, which might have helped avoid the accident.
Now with its revamped safety procedures and new protocols in place, Uber is hoping to get back on track with its self-driving vehicle development. After becoming a publicly traded company in May 2019, Uber is under pressure to reach profitability and deploying self-driving vehicles are one of the ways Uber might attain its goal.
"We believe that autonomous vehicle technologies will enable a product that competes with the cost of personal vehicle ownership and usage, and represents the future of transportation," the company wrote in its prospectus ahead of its IPO.
In April 2019, Uber's self-driving arm Uber ATG, announced a $1 billion investment from Toyota, Denso and the SoftBank Vision Fund. Toyota and Uber are working together to develop self-driving vehicles and the commercialization of a low-cost autonomous ride-hailing service.
Uber did not say how many vehicles it's using to map and collect data in Washington D.C.
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