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Self-Driving Ubers Are Back

Autonomous Car

You might want to stay at home (unless you really need an Uber).

When I started attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh two years ago, I was like most college freshmen around the country: a little overwhelmed, trying to make new friends and adjust to the newfound independence while still managing to do school work. There was one notable difference: almost every day on my walk to class I would see self-driving Uber prototypes roaming the streets, their LIDAR detectors spinning away atop the roofs of the modified Volvo XC90s. You could even catch a ride in one of the autonomous Ubers if you were lucky enough to connect with one when hailing your ride on the app (I never was, but several of my friends have excitedly recounted their experiences to me).

However, just over nine months ago one of Uber’s test vehicles hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, prompting an almost immediate shutdown of the experimental cars. In the crash, the Uber struck 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg while she was walking her bicycle across the street, and the driver, who was streaming a television show on her phone, wasn’t able to get on the brakes until after the impact had occurred. The governor of Arizona prohibited future testing in the state and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi even thought about ending the program.

In the end, he didn’t, and after the Pennsylvania Transportation Department granted permission to restart testing, autonomous Ubers will return to the streets of Pittsburgh. Uber plans to start small, with only a few cars near its offices in Downtown Pittsburgh. Some changes have been made, however. There will now be two human backup drivers and the vehicles will remain on roads where the speed limit is 25 mph. Additionally, the self-driving Ubers will only be available during daylight hours on weekdays and will not be run in stormy weather.

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Along with Uber’s autonomous technology that was added to the XC90s, the company will also now turn on Volvo's own automatic emergency braking system, which will act as a backup to Uber’s safety measures. Previously, Uber had deactivated this function when testing their vehicles. Along with Pittsburgh, Uber announced plans to resume testing in Toronto and San Francisco, although Arizona will not see the return of autonomous Ubers.

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