Uber self-driving cars back on public roads, but in manual mode

Uber is putting its autonomous vehicles back on Pittsburgh’s city streets, four months after a fatal accident involving one of its self-driving cars prompted the ride-hailing company to halt testing on public roads. But for now, Uber’s modified self-driving Volvo XC90 vehicles will only be driven manually by humans and under a new set of safety standards that includes real-time monitoring of its test drivers and efforts to beef up simulation. 

The sensors, including light detection and ranging radar known as LiDAR, will be operational on these self-driving vehicles. They won’t be operated in autonomous mode, however. Uber will use these manually operated self-driving vehicles to update its HD maps of Pittsburgh.

This manual-first rollout is a step toward Uber’s ultimate goal to relaunch its autonomous vehicle testing program in Pittsburgh, according to Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, who published a post Tuesday on Medium.

Uber halted all of its autonomous vehicle operations March 19, the day after one of its vehicles struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Uber was testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads in Tempe, Ariz., where the accident occurred, as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

In the days and weeks following the fatal accident, it appeared the company’s self-driving vehicle program might end for good. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a proponent of autonomous-vehicle technology who invited Uber to the state, suspended the company from testing its self-driving cars following the accident. Last month, Uber let go all 100 of its self-driving car operators in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Those drivers affected by the layoffs, most of whom were in Pittsburgh, are being encouraged to apply for Uber’s new mission specialist positions. Uber is holding off on making these positions public until the laid-off drivers have a chance to apply and go through the interview process.

Even now, with the company beefing up its safety protocols and taking a slower approach to autonomous vehicle testing, the program’s future is still uncertain. Another accident would likely derail it for good.

These new safeguards aim to avoid such a scenario. Uber said Tuesday that all its self-driving vehicles, whether they’re driven manually or eventually in autonomous mode, will have two Uber employees inside. These “mission specialists” — a new name Uber has given to its test drivers — will have specific jobs. The person behind the wheel will be responsible for maintaining the vehicle safely, while the second “mission specialist” will ride shotgun and document events.

Uber is also equipping every self-driving vehicle with a driver monitoring system that will remain active whenever the vehicle is in use. The system will track driver behavior in real time. If it detects inattentiveness an audio alert will cue the driver. An alert is also sent to a remote monitor who will take appropriate action once they’ve assessed the situation, Uber said. 

The driver monitoring system, which an Uber spokesperson declined to share details about, is an off-the-shelf aftermarket product.

Investigators determined that Rafaela Vasquez, who was operating the Uber self-driving vehicle involved in the fatal crash, looked down at a phone that was streaming The Voice 204 times during a 43-minute test drive that ended when Herzberg was struck and killed, according to a 318-page police report released by the Tempe Police Department.

Based on the data, police reported that Vasquez could have avoided hitting Herzberg if her eyes were on the road. The case has been submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney’s office for review against Vasquez, who could face charges of vehicular manslaughter.

Uber has always had a policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating its self-driving vehicles, according to a spokesperson. However, without a proper driver monitoring system or another passenger in the vehicle, it was impossible for Uber to really know if that rule was being followed.

Now, the driver monitoring system can spot the behavior immediately. If the system detects the driver is looking at a phone, the remote monitor will call the team immediately back, a spokesperson said, adding it was grounds for dismissal.

Other safeguards include a defensive and distracted driving course conducted on a test track and fatigue management program that requires the two mission specialists in each vehicle to periodically switch between driver and data logger roles, according to Uber.

The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the accident. A preliminary report by the NTSB found Uber’s modified Volvo XC90’s LiDAR and radar first spotted an object in its path about six seconds before the crash. The self-driving system first classified the pedestrian as an unknown object, then as a vehicle and then as a bicycle. At 1.3 seconds before impact, the self-driving system determined that an emergency braking maneuver was needed to mitigate a collision, according to the NTSB. But to reduce the potential for “erratic behavior,” Uber had disabled Volvo’s emergency braking system so it didn’t work when the vehicle was under computer control.

Uber said it will keep Volvo’s emergency braking and vehicle collision warning systems enabled while the vehicle is in manual mode. Engineers are examining whether the Volvo’s safety system can work in conjunction with its own self-driving technology while the vehicle is in autonomous mode.