On a 54-acre, closely guarded facility in Pittsburgh, Uber is building its return to autonomous driving after the March 2018 crash where a self-driving Uber hit and killed a woman crossing a street in Tempe, Arizona. Uber gave “CBS This Morning” an exclusive look at the secret test track.
The company is betting its self-driving future on their new autonomous vehicle, which it plans to test on the street in San Francisco and Toronto later this year. It’s a crawl-walk-run approach to autonomous driving that Uber says comes with a renewed focus on safety.
“There’s a lot of skepticism about self-driving cars,” said CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave. “And in the aftermath of that accident, there’s more skepticism about Uber and self-driving cars. So how are you going to convince me or my mother that she should get in the back of one?”
“It’s by demonstration. It’s by showing that the system works,” said Eric Meyhofer, who leads Uber’s autonomous driving unit. “It’s by not saying it, but proving it.”
There are approximately 40,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. every year. The promise of the self-driving car is that it could potentially reduce or eliminate the 94% of crashes that are caused by human error.
After Uber’s fatal accident, the number of people who said they were afraid to ride in a self-driving car rose to 71% up from 63% a year ago.
The fatal crash halted Uber’s self-driving car program as the company conducted a top-to-bottom safety review. They added a second safety driver, and technology that monitors them for distraction. Uber resumed limited on-road testing in Pittsburgh last December, but most of the development work is happening at this test facility, the site of an old steel mill, where the roads are named after the famous kids program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Uber promises even if the car is doing the driving, the ultimate control will be at the passenger’s fingertips. Now, there’s a button passengers can press to make the car immediately find a safe place to pull over. The cars are also cautious: They operate at 25 miles per hour or less, a speed that allows the cars more decision time.
Even Uber admits they sometimes fail tests. “Our approach isn’t going to be, ‘It’s ready, hey everybody, it’s ready, trust us.'” Meyhofer said. “Our approach is, ‘It’s not ready yet. This vehicle is not ready yet. We believe that this vehicle can do it. But today, it isn’t there.'”
Tim Stevens, from CNET’s Roadshow, believes developing self-driving technology is “absolutely fundamental” to Uber’s bottom line. “If they cannot get drivers out of cars, they probably will never be profitable enough to be a viable business,” he said.
Uber’s competition, Waymo, is already offering a limited autonomous ride hailing service in Arizona. Drive.ai has a shuttle service running in Texas, and Ford is testing on the streets of Miami.
Uber’s third generation vehicle will be the one to pick up passengers – and it’s the first Uber to be driven by a computer.
“It’s one of the hardest engineering challenges of our generation,” Meyhofer said. “We think of it as our space program.”