[By Michael Laris]
Uber will start scanning and mapping District roads Friday in preparation for testing self-driving cars here later this year, the company said Thursday.
The ride-hailing company is moving to expand testing on public roads following the conclusion, in November, of a federal investigation into problems with Uber’s technology and management that left an Arizona pedestrian dead in 2018.
After its digital mapping is completed in Washington and other technical work is done in Pittsburgh, Uber will begin its autonomous operations on District roads with speed limits of 25 mile per hour, company officials said. There will be a backup driver behind the wheel, with a second safety employee sitting beside them. Executives offered no public estimate of when their cars might open to potential customers.
Self-driving firm Argo AI, working with Ford, launched a similar mapping effort in the District in 2018 and has been operating its self-driving cars, also with teams of backup drivers, in parts of the city since February, according to a Ford spokesman. The companies targeted the end of 2021 for the launch of a commercial service in the city.
Eric Meyhofer, who heads Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, said in a statement that the technology “has the potential to drive safer streets, cost-effective rides, and increased access.”
The efforts in Washington come as federal officials and communities across the country are weighing the costs and benefits of the multibillion-dollar push by major technology companies and carmakers to develop and deploy self-driving vehicles.
Pedestrian in self-driving Uber crash probably would have lived if braking feature hadn’t been shut off, NTSB documents show
Legislative efforts in Congress have faltered, and responses to the vehicles have been varied. Many have raised concerns about safety and the potential for added traffic, while others have welcomed their introduction as a way of minimizing error by human drivers and maximizing travel choices for the elderly and others.
The National Transportation Safety Board, after investigating Uber’s fatal crash in Arizona, said in November that the federal government has failed to provide needed oversight of autonomous-vehicle testing on public roads.
In March 2018, a self-driving Uber Volvo SUV killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she walked a bike across a street in Tempe, Ariz. The NTSB said Uber should have known that its system was unable “to correctly classify and predict the path of the pedestrian crossing the road midblock.”
Uber has since overhauled training for its backup drivers; a company safety driver had been streaming a television singing competition on her phone before the Tempe crash. Uber says it has also made software fixes to better track pedestrians, reinstated an automatic emergency braking system it had disabled on its Volvo test vehicles, and added new internal and external safety systems and reviews.
Uber is testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads in Pittsburgh and has done digital mapping work in preparation for doing the same in San Francisco, Toronto and Dallas, company officials said.
The District has proved to have its own quirks and “unique challenges,” Ford and Argo AI said in a presentation to city officials last year.
Among them: rush hours start earlier and last longer on both morning and evening commutes; the rules along certain stretches of road change “throughout the day”; motorcades, large events and “pop-up construction” add complexities that reinforce the need for up-to-the minute maps; and large numbers of pedestrians and bikers demonstrate the “need for civic engagement and relationship building with our future customers,” the companies said.