Uber’s self-driving cars resume service in Pittsburgh

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Uber’s self-driving cars returned to Pittsburgh streets Monday, capping a nearly three-day hiatus.

The ride-hailing company suspended its autonomous vehicles over the weekend after a wreck in Tempe, Ariz., rolled one of the cars. Police there cited a driver in another vehicle for a moving violation. They said the Uber SUV, in self-driving mode when the crash occurred Friday night, was following traffic laws.

Still, San Francisco-based Uber said it paused driverless operations to better understand the collision. Authorities reported no serious injuries, and the company said only two operators — no passengers — were in the Uber vehicle at the time.

By Monday afternoon, Uber reported confidence in letting the test cars return to work in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Tempe. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called the company’s response “proper.”

In this Sept. 12, 2016, photo, a group of self-driving Uber vehicles position themselves to take journalists on rides during a media preview at Uber's Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh.
Bob Christie and Josh Hoffner

“Shutting down operations, even though the vehicle was not at fault, at least allows people to know that [Uber has] more at stake at this than just profit,” Mr. Peduto said.

His chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, joined a conference call Monday with Uber after the administration asked the company for an update. Mr. Peduto said such communication “allows us to have the security that [the company is] willing to share with us information that needs to be back to the public.”

Uber said Saturday that it indefinitely halted its autonomous-car testing after the Tempe crash. Test vehicles operate with a safety driver in place to override the automatic system when necessary, along with a technician. The company introduced a self-driving fleet to Pittsburgh customers about six months ago, later expanding tests into San Francisco and the Phoenix area.

Arizona is among more than 40 states, including Pennsylvania, with no specific rules to oversee testing of self-driving vehicles. The states that do have legislation vary widely in their requirements.

In California, testing companies must register with the state and have to report every time the safety driver intercedes at all, even if it involves only touching the brakes. Michigan passed laws last fall that give vehicle manufacturers — but not companies such as Uber and Google that are developing self-driving systems — wide latitude to test vehicles with or without safety drivers available to take over if there are problems.

In Pennsylvania, the state House and Senate held a joint hearing last week on proposed legislation to oversee testing of self-driving vehicles. The legislation would require companies to register, notify the state immediately of any reportable accidents and file reports every six months listing the miles traveled and hours on the road for testing.
An Uber Volvo on its side following a crash Friday in Arizona.
Daniel Moore

Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he expects “substantial” changes to the bill as a result of last week’s testimony. There is no timetable for approving rules, meaning Uber can keep operating under existing laws that don’t prohibit self-driving vehicles as long as there is a safety driver available.

Consumer Watchdog, a California organization that has been lobbying against self-driving vehicles for safety reasons, said Friday’s accident proved its concerns.

“Companies like Uber are using our public roads as their private laboratories,” said John M. Simpson, the group’s private policy director. “There must be complete transparency and accountability about what they are doing, which clearly can threaten public safety.”

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