After its digital mapping is completed in Washington and other technical work is done in Pittsburgh, Uber will begin its autonomous operations on District roads with speed limits of 25 miles per hour, company officials said. There will be a backup driver behind the wheel, with a second safety employee sitting beside them. Executives offered no public estimate of when their cars might open to potential customers.
Self-driving firm Argo AI, working with Ford, launched a similar mapping effort in the District in 2018 and has been operating its self-driving cars, also with teams of backup drivers, in parts of the city since February, according to a Ford spokesman. The companies targeted the end of 2021 for the launch of a commercial service in the city.
Eric Meyhofer, who heads Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, said in a statement that the technology “has the potential to drive safer streets, cost-effective rides, and increased access.”
Uber chose the District for part of its self-driving tests in part to give policymakers a better view of their ongoing work, Meyhofer said.
“It’s our responsibility to inform and educate folks about how this goes and what this is and what are we doing,” Meyhofer said at the Washington Auto Show on Thursday. The company is taking “a phased approach to develop and deploy these vehicles, and we’re taking the necessary steps to operate safely.”
Lucinda Babers, the District’s deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure, said “so long as it is safe and effective, if someone comes to us with a new idea, we’re going to be open to it.”
The efforts in Washington come as federal officials and communities across the country are weighing the costs and benefits of the multibillion-dollar push by major technology companies and carmakers to develop and deploy self-driving vehicles.
Legislative efforts in Congress have faltered, and responses to the vehicles have been varied. Many have raised concerns about safety and the potential for added traffic, while others have welcomed their introduction as a way of minimizing error by human drivers and maximizing travel choices for the elderly and others.
The National Transportation Safety Board, after investigating Uber’s fatal crash in Arizona, said in November that the federal government has failed to provide needed oversight of autonomous-vehicle testing on public roads.
In March 2018, a self-driving Uber Volvo SUV killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she walked a bike across a street in Tempe, Ariz. The NTSB said Uber should have known that its system was unable “to correctly classify and predict the path of the pedestrian crossing the road midblock.”
Uber has since overhauled training for its backup drivers; a company safety driver had been streaming a television singing competition on her phone before the Tempe crash. Uber says it has also made software fixes to better track pedestrians, reinstated an automatic emergency braking system it had disabled on its Volvo test vehicles, and added new internal and external safety systems and reviews.
Uber is testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads in Pittsburgh and has done digital mapping work in preparation for doing the same in San Francisco, Toronto and Dallas, company officials said.
The District has proved to have its own quirks and “unique challenges,” Ford and Argo AI said in a presentation to city officials last year.
Among them: Rush hours start earlier and last longer on both morning and evening commutes; the rules along certain stretches of road change “throughout the day”; motorcades, large events and “pop-up construction” add complexities that reinforce the need for up-to-the minute maps; and large numbers of pedestrians and bikers demonstrate the “need for civic engagement and relationship building with our future customers,” the companies said.
Washington set up an interagency working group in 2018 that published an “Autonomous Vehicles Principles Statement” that described its key priorities for operators entering into the city.
The vehicles “should help reduce the carbon footprint of the District, and limit other forms of transportation-related pollution,” and they should “only travel on streets where they can operate without putting people at heightened risk,” it reads.
Moreover, data generated during self-driving projects in the city should be shared with the city, as long as privacy, security and trade secrets are protected, it said. Such “requirements for data sharing should be built into regulations and partnerships,” the city said.
Meyhofer said Uber was also attracted to Washington because of the company’s other long-standing operations in the city, including typical ride-hailing but also electric bikes and scooters. Self-driving cars will eventually help with “tying our mobility systems together,” he said.
“You can imagine a world where the self-driving car has your scooter on the back, and it’s getting charged from the car, and you’re getting some sort of credit for distributing that scooter,” Meyhofer said.
The company said it is starting slow, with three autonomous vehicles rolling, in manual mode, beginning Friday.
“It’s not going to be car haulers with thousands of cars and off they go,” Meyhofer said. “It’s going to be a few cars, and we’re going to continue to have a dialogue and really try to engage.”