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Uber’s Autonomous Test Cars Lagged Behind Competitors Before The Arizona Crash: Report

Illustration for article titled Uber’s Autonomous Test Cars Lagged Behind Competitors Before The Arizona Crash: Report
Photo: Uber

In the aftermath of the fatal crash involving an self-driving Uber vehicle and pedestrian 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Arizona last week, the company has come under extra scrutiny about its self-driving technology and how it’s deployed. Now, a New York Times investigation details just how far behind Uber’s cars were even leading up to the Arizona crash.


Additionally, the newspaper reports that Dara Khosrowshahi—the man brought in to clean up Uber after alpha-bro CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted—considered shutting down the self-driving car project, previously seen as the key to Uber’s future as it grapples with the costs of rides and whether its drivers are contractors or full employees.


The paper reports one hundred pages of documents and people familiar with the company’s operations have revealed an incredibly unsettling fact: While Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle project, was able to drive almost 5,600 miles last year without driver intervention, Uber’s self-driving cars weren’t able to meet its target goal of 13 miles per intervention as of March. That’s a pretty huge discrepancy.

From the story:

Waymo and Cruise, a self-driving car company owned by GM, reported their “intervention” numbers to California regulators. Uber’s goals in Arizona were mentioned in internal documents — Arizona does not have reporting requirements — and it has not been testing self-driving cars in California long enough to be required to report them.

[...] But Uber’s autonomous cars are not operating nearly as well as those of its competitors. Cruise reported to California regulators that it went more than 1,200 miles per intervention. After its strong California results, Waymo is now testing cars in Chandler, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb, with no safety drivers.


The report says Uber’s autonomous vehicles struggled to navigate unfamiliar and tricky situations such as construction sites and driving next to big rigs—two pretty common occurrences for the average driver. It’s almost surprising that Uber’s solo-driver autonomous vehicles didn’t make headlines sooner.

So why were the cars on the roads in the first place? Uber was feeling the pressure, the story said. The company has been trying to save face after Khosrowshahi replaced Kalanick as chief executive in a change of arms that made headlines for all the wrong reasons, and Khosrowshahi initially didn’t see the value in a long-term autonomous vehicle project. In April, he had planned a visit to the Uber’s Phoenix testing site, where the plan was to give him a ride through difficult, unpredictable road conditions with no driver intervention.


Needless to say, that won’t be happening any time soon. Uber has shut down its autonomous car testing in Pittsburgh, Arizona, San Francisco, and Toronto for the foreseeable future.

As Jalopnik’s Ryan Felton also uncovered earlier this week, the Times reports Uber eventually stopped the practice of having two humans mind the car during testing, as is generally industry standard. The Phoenix test involved two separate groups of test drivers. One group put cars through “stress” situations that would have resulted in a crash without any driver intervention.


The second focused on picking up customers in their vehicles and were encouraged to take control to prevent the little things—a sharp turn or hard braking. When the two groups merged to begin offering an entirely driverless system, Uber swapped from the two-driver system (where one person could take over in case of failure and the other kept track of data) to a single driver. Even employees voiced concern over the safety risks it would entail, like these:

Not all drivers followed Uber’s training. One was fired after falling asleep at the wheel and being spotted by a colleague. Another was spotted air drumming as the autonomous car passed through an intersection, according to the two people familiar with Uber’s operations.


Across the board, it seems like Uber has dropped the ball in the autonomous vehicle field. It’s stumbled where their competitors took confident strides, and the price it may pay could be massive Now, the project that was supposed to clear its name has only made another mess to clean up.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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ferric oxide

Why do we keep calling these things “Uber” when they are Volvos. I mean, I get that Volvo doesn’t want to lose their safety image but Uber is more or less trying out their cars in ‘murica’.

The guy zoning out at the wheel for 30 seconds wasn’t great but that’s going to be common practice if these things go retail, guaranteed. It’s hard to get people to focus on driving when that’s their job, let alone within 5 seconds when R2-D2 decides it can’t cope after 4 hours of books on tape and catnaps.