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Uber to suspend autonomous tests after Arizona accident

| Saturday, March 25, 2017, 3:18 p.m.
One of Uber's self-driving Volvos was spotted in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.
Ardavan Bidgoli
One of Uber's self-driving Volvos was spotted in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.

Uber Technologies Inc. is suspending its self-driving car program after one of its autonomous vehicles was involved in a high-impact crash in Tempe, Arizona, the latest incident for a company reeling from multiple crises.

In a photo posted on Twitter, one of Uber's Volvo self-driving SUVs is pictured on its side next to another car with dents and smashed windows. An Uber spokeswoman confirmed the incident, and the veracity of the photo, and added that the ride-hailing company is suspending its autonomous tests in Arizona until it completes its investigation and pausing its Pittsburgh operations.

The Uber vehicle was not responsible for the incident and there were no injuries, Tempe police information officer Josie Montenegro told Bloomberg News. Another car failed to yield for the Uber car, causing the autonomous vehicle to flip on its side, according to the police report.

“There was a person behind the wheel,” said Montenegro regarding the Uber vehicle. “It is uncertain at this time if they were controlling the vehicle at the time of the collision.”

An Uber spokeswoman said “we are continuing to look into this incident and can confirm we had no backseat passengers in the vehicle.”

Uber began testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh last year and soon expanded to Arizona, after its self-driving cars were banned from San Francisco's streets in December by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The focus on self-driving cars was intended to demonstrate Uber's progress with the nascent technology, and it began picking up customers in Tempe last month after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a proponent of self-driving cars, took the inaugural ride.

However, Uber's self-driving car program has been mired in controversy. Waymo, Alphabet Inc.'s autonomous driving business that is also testing driverless vehicles in Arizona, sued an Uber unit called Otto earlier this year for allegedly stealing designs for an important component of driverless cars known as lidar. Uber called the suit “baseless.”

The photo, showing the Uber SUV on its side, suggests a relatively high-impact crash. That would be a contrast to the incidents involving self-driving cars tested by Waymo. In more than 2 million miles of testing on public roads, Waymo's vehicles were mostly minor incidents, often when other cars drove into the back of their vehicles in busy areas.

Safety drivers inside Uber's self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Arizona and California had to take control of the car an average of every mile, according to documents obtained by the tech website Recode.

The documents show that last week, Uber's 43 active cars drove 20,354 miles autonomously but traveled an average of 0.8 miles before the safety driver had to take control, a Recode report stated.

Uber, which has not publicly released data on its self-driving pilot programs, declined to comment on leaked documents.

The documents did not alarm Pittsburgh self-driving car experts and city officials.

“I'm not concerned,” Stan Caldwell, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's Traffic21 Institute , wrote to the Tribune-Review .

Caldwell took his first ride in a self-driving Uber last week on Penn Avenue through the Strip District. He said it's an area where he feels uncomfortable driving because of the pedestrian traffic and close street parking.

“So clearly, Uber is purposely testing in the most challenging environments to advance the technology. We know that automated vehicles need much more research and development and real world scenarios are the best proving ground. What would concern me would be a tester operating on a less challenging highway without incident and giving the impression that the technology is ready for prime time,” Caldwell said.

Pennsylvania law requires Uber to have a person behind the wheel as it tests self-driving cars. That requirement could change as the state passes autonomous vehicle regulations. The Senate and House Transportation committees are holding a joint hearing Tuesday in Harrisburg to hear testimony about the proposal regulations.

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