Uber has asked Pennsylvania regulators for permission to resume testing of its self-driving cars, the company announced November 2. Uber’s self-driving car ambitions were seemingly dashed when one of its test vehicles crashed in Tempe, Arizona this March, tragically killing a pedestrian. There have been concerns about the driver, who may have been watching The Voice while driving and may face charges. The crash put the spotlight on Uber’s software, however, as it recognized the pedestrian but failed to react in time. Uber ended self-driving tests in Arizona after the governor banned them and temporarily suspended all testing on public roads pending an NTSB investigation, including terminating its operations in Pittsburgh. Ever since Uber and Carnegie Mellon announced a partnership—to some criticism—Pennsylvania had been ground zero for its self-driving efforts.
Testing on public roads is critical for self-driving cars. Self-driving cars are machine learning technologies, meaning that they teach themselves from data, so increasing miles driven on public roads is paramount—according to one RAND study, possibly 8 billion miles of real-world testing are needed. Uber’s autonomous vehicles division has a long history of technological struggle, and is widely reported to be far behind its peers with only 13 miles per intervention—lower than its peers by a factor of 100. Overall, though, most crashes in self-driving tests are caused by humans; Google famously went without a crash for years. Human error is a contributing factor in over 90% of traffic deaths, leading some to calculate that self-driving cars could save 300,000 lives per decade. With Waymo and Tesla leading in miles logged, Uber is hardly ahead of Cruise.
Regulations are key for testing. Testing on public roads requires state approval from individual Departments for Motor Vehicles, and all self-driving cars interact with several federal regulators via the Department of Transportation. The government has produced several voluntary guidelines, including the DOT’s Automated Vehicles 3.0 guidelines. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has directed the NHTSA to consider permitting cars without steering wheels. California and Arizona are the main testing grounds for autonomous vehicles, and there has been a regulatory race to permit self-driving tests, with both states recently announcing that fully self-driving cars will be permitted on their roads. Some other states, like Florida, have also been aggressively permissive; others, like New York, just recently permitted drivers to take their hands off the wheel while self-parking, which has been commercially available since 2003. States also compete on disclosures, with California requiring a safety disclosure and Arizona requiring none at all. Uber will likely be under close scrutiny as it cautiously restarts its efforts.
Former CEO Travis Kalanick called self-driving “existential” for Uber, as labor is the company’s most significant cost. Though the NHTSA Tempe report is expected early next year, Pittsburgh’s regulators expressed confidence in Uber’s new controls. Uber’s first self-driving car was a Volvo XC90, launched in 2016 in Pittsburgh.