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Uber's self-driving cars still need some human assistance, documents show

| Saturday, March 18, 2017, 12:11 a.m.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
An Uber self-driving car is parked in the company's Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.

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.

Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, said with CMU's decades of self-driving car research, the city is used to being a testing ground.

"That's why it's a pilot program, to test things out," McNulty 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 proposed regulations. Shari Shapiro, Uber's senior manager of public affairs for Pennsylvania and Delaware, is scheduled to participate in a roundtable discussion.


RELATED: Uber wants to pump the brakes on autonomous car testing rules in Pa.


Uber began offering customers in Pittsburgh rides in autonomous Ford Fusions in September. The company since has grown its fleet to include Volvo SUVs. Uber hoped to have 100 cars on the road by the end of 2016.

The San Francisco ride-hailing company also is testing self-driving cars in Arizona and restarted tests in San Francisco this month.

Uber measures the miles between "critical" interventions and "bad experiences," according to the documents. Critical interventions are when a driver has to take control to prevent the vehicle from causing damage or harm, like hitting a person. There were about 100 critical interventions during the 20,354 miles driven last week, according to reports.

Bad experiences are jerky movement, hard braking or other motions that aren't comfortable but don't cause damage. The miles-per-intervention metric, about 0.8 at the beginning of March, accounts for all instances — critical and bad experiences — in which a driver takes control.

An Uber spokesperson cautioned against making apples-to-apples comparisons with data and reports from other companies testing autonomous cars, such as Alphabet's Waymo.

In 2016, Waymo cars drove 635,868 miles in California, which requires companies to report autonomous driving data, and logged 124 disengagements for an average of 0.2 disengagements per 1,000 miles. In 2015, Waymo cars drove 424,331 miles and averaged 0.8 disengagements per 1,000 miles.

Waymo's California report notes that drivers inside their cars take control often but the company does not count those in its reporting. Uber said the company measures all disengagements.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at aaupperlee@tribweb.com or 412-336-8448.

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