Uber: Autonomous Vehicles go manual in Pittsburgh

Uber is rebooting its AV programme in Pittsburgh - only this time, its Volvo XC90 vehicles are driven in manual mode. 

The autonomous driving programme of the ride-hailing giant was promptly put on hold after a fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona last March. Last May, a leaked, internal email by the Head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, Eric Meyhofer, stated that Uber would be pulling out of Arizona and would instead focus on Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The email from two months ago even explained how the next step of the autonomous testing would be much more limited.

When we get back on the road, we intend to drive in a much more limited way to test specific use cases in concert with our Software and Hardware development teams. Taking this approach will allow us to continually hone the safety aspects of our software and operating procedures.
— Eric Meyhofer in a leaked, internal email to his team

With a short post on Medium this morning, Eric Meyhofer announced the return of the autonomous Uber XC90 vehicles to the streets of Pittsburgh. According to his post, a few important changes have been implemented. Most importantly, the vehicles will no longer be operating in autonomous mode, but rather, they will be ordinarily driven by the Mission Specialist. This will enable collection of data which will then be used for Virtual Simulation Scenario Generation. Additionally, the miles driven will allow Uber to improve its HD Maps of the Pittsburgh area.

Although not visible from the outside, changes aimed at improving safety have been implemented. The vehicles used now come equipped with a Driver Monitoring system, their Navi-screens have been redesigned to eliminate potential distractions, and the Collision Avoidance systems are fully active, even on manual mode (Uber is probably making use of Volvo's built-in City Safety system, although this has not been mentioned explicitly). 

The changes made do not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the recent Uber developments. After the details of the Arizona incident surfaced, it became evident that the safety driver supposed to monitor the car's autonomous driving was watching a reality TV show on her phone. Accordingly, the returning Volvo XC90 vehicles will be equipped with an off-the-shelf camera system acting as the base of the Driver Monitoring system - the dedicated camera will monitor driver behaviour in real time, sound an audio alert inside the vehicle, and inform a remote monitor, if the driver is distracted, TechCrunch reports.

Only weeks ago, Uber held a meeting in which approximately 100 Uber self-driving vehicle operators in Pittsburgh were terminated. Interestingly, the company gave the laid off operators the opportunity to apply for another specialist position - albeit one requiring more advanced training. The new role, called Mission Specialist, will be the person behind the wheel of the vehicle; a second specialist in the passenger seat will be responsible for documenting notable events, according to Meyhofer.

It remains to be seen whether the changes implemented will bear fruit - Uber's reputation has been severely tarnished since the fatal accident. Unfortunately (or fortunately, some would say), the ride-hailing giant is one of the major players in the AV space, so the programme's success is probably fundamental in ensuring the general public is comfortable riding in or interacting with autonomous vehicles in the future. Hopefully, Uber will get it right this time. 

Photo Credit: Zombieite 

Andrew Kyprianides