Uber officially resumed testing its self-driving cars on public roads Thursday, nine months after one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The company received a letter from Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation authorizing it to restart its program, albeit in a highly scaled back fashion.
For the time being, 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. Only two vehicles are being tested for now, though more will be added. The cars won’t exceed the posted speed limit of 25 mph, and will have two safety drivers in them at all times — Uber calls them “mission specialists.” For now, the cars aren’t picking up any passengers.
This downsized version of Uber’s self-driving program reflects the extent to which the company’s had to reassess its grand plan to conquer urban transportation with robot taxis after the crash in Tempe. The self-driving Uber car was traveling north with one safety driver inside when it struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg while she was pushing her bicycle across the street. The driver was streaming a television show on her phone at the time of the crash, and didn’t hit the brakes until after impact, according to the National Traffic Safety Board and local police.
The governor of Arizona barred the company from further testing in his state, and Uber subsequently laid off hundreds of safety drivers in Arizona and Pittsburgh. In the wake of the crash, reports emerged that Uber’s self-driving program was potentially fraught with risk. Uber had reduced the number of “safety drivers” in its test cars from two to one, according to a New York Times report. This explained why the driver who was in the car that killed Herzberg was alone.