What Uber’s self-driving car hiatus and the crash in Arizona mean for Pittsburgh

Don’t expect it to be a setback, experts say.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Last week’s crash involving a self-driving Uber happened on the other side of the country and led the company to sideline its autonomous vehicles for nearly three days. But don’t expect much to change in Pittsburgh.

Work on the technology will continue. Safety will still be stressed.

Uber pulled self-driving cars from streets in Pittsburgh, Tempe, Ariz., and San Francisco, Calif., as the company investigated a Friday crash in Arizona that put an autonomous Uber Volvo, which was in self-driving mode, on its side. The company said it was confident returning the cars to all three cities Monday.

Here’s what the crash means for Pittsburgh.

For the technology

Uber made the right decision by taking the cars off the roads, agreed Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a leader in self-driving vehicle technology, and Jackie Erickson, a founding member of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network.

“They clearly need to know whether it was a technology problem, operator error or something else,” Rajkumar said in an email to The Incline.

Ideally, the self-driving car should have slowed down and stopped to avoid being hit, but we don’t know if it did or did not, Rajkumar said. It will take years of work to get self-driving cars to better anticipate and respond to bad behavior by drivers, he said.

Erickson said she’s interested in seeing what data the self-driving Uber collected during the crash. “What does this type of incident look like when you have a computer attached to it?” she said.

The computers will collect details that humans can’t see or might not remember, Erickson said, adding that the information could help improve human driving as well as showcase how safe the self-driving cars are.

Regardless, the safety driver in autonomous vehicles “have to be more vigilant [and] understand what the self-driving vehicles cannot do and intervene when necessary,” Rajkumar said. “The leaders of these companies need to make these operators aware of the technology limitations.”

In the Tempe incident Friday, no one was seriously hurt and there were no backseat passengers in the vehicle, per Uber. The crash occurred when a driver failed to yield, made a left turn at an intersection and hit the Uber, according to Tempe police. Authorities said the self-driving car was following the law and the driver in the other car was cited for a moving violation, the Associated Press reported.

Since the public self-driving Uber rides started here in September, there have been no reportable incidents involving self-driving Uber vehicles, Pittsburgh public safety spokeswoman Emily Schaffer said Friday. Collisions are generally reported to police only if there is a physical injury or damage to a vehicle.

For public views

Pittsburghers are going to be more accepting of self-driving cars and the incidents that happen, because these cars are part of daily life in the city, Erickson said.

“We understand the hiccups,” she said.

A survey by Bike Pittsburgh released this month showed Pittsburghers largely have positive views of self-driving cars and are comfortable walking and cycling near them.

But a national AAA survey showed opposite views when it came to being a passenger. One-in-five drivers surveyed said they would trust a self-driving car to drive itself and three out of four would be “afraid” to ride in a self-driving car, per the AAA survey. In feedback to the state Autonomous Vehicle Testing Policy Task Force, Pennsylvanians asked about safety and about what happens if a self-driving vehicle hits their car.

It’s understandable that people might be apprehensive or nervous about self-driving cars, and that’s why AAA is doing education through its website and community events, said Jim Garrity, public and community relations manager for AAA East Central, which includes parts of five states.

“Time and transparency is going to lead to trust among the public,” he said.

Public views will always be split in some way, Rajkumar said. He said some people will be happy to do something else in the car while the car drives itself. Others are skeptical about giving up control of the vehicle.

“Incidents like these help the public ground themselves in reality,” Rajkumar said by email. “While much progress has been made with self-driving vehicles, there is quite some distance to go.”

Advocates and government officials have stressed the benefits of self-driving vehicles, saying they can improve mobility as well as safety. That still stands, many said Monday.

“Over 35,000 fatalities occur on U.S. roads and highways each year, and approximately 93 percent of those motor vehicle crashes are caused by human error — both sobering statistics that the Coalition is dedicated to reducing with self-driving technology,” said David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, in a statement to The Incline. 

The coalition is made up of Ford, Lyft, Uber, Volvo Cars and Waymo to advocate for the the safety and societal benefits of self-driving vehicles.

Many others have pointed to these same statistics as part of the case for self-driving cars, and the Bike Pittsburgh survey showed about two-thirds to three-fourths of all respondents agreed that self-driving cars could reduce injuries and fatalities.

For the rules

It’s too soon to tell if this crash in Arizona will affect proposed legislation for testing self-driving cars in Pennsylvania, said Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the state Senate Transportation Committee. SB 427 has guidance for what happens when a self-driving vehicle is in a reportable crash, he said.

“As the bill is currently laid out, the tester, in this case Uber, would have to report to PennDOT how they would reinstate a vehicle” if it were returning to the roads after a crash, Ritchie said.

City spokesman Tim McNulty said in an email to The Incline that the one incident won’t change the city’s stance on self-driving testing:

“Pittsburgh has been a host to automated vehicle technology for two decades and will be continue to be a leader in the technology for years to come. One traffic incident in a city 2,000 miles away — in which the automated vehicle was not at fault, according to Tempe police — is not going to change that.”

In a Monday call initiated by city officials, Uber offered to share the results of an investigation by Tempe police’s accident investigation team with Pittsburgh once it is complete, McNulty said. Uber is also continuing to work internally on a process for sharing information about incidents with the public.

The city and Uber are committed to keeping communication open about further traffic incidents regardless of location, McNulty said. That commitment follows what recently was a rocky relationship between the ride-sharing company and Mayor Bill Peduto.

McNulty said the mayor, who is running for re-election, supports the “Complete Streets transportation model, which considers uses of our right-of-ways by all, whether they are motorists, pedestrians, transit users, bicyclists or sharing-economy vehicles.”

Mayoral candidate Rev. John C. Welch, who has criticized Peduto’s relationship with Uber, said Monday he thought it was wise to remove the cars from Pittsburgh streets.

Welch said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety should have some say in when the cars are deemed safe enough to return to the streets and advocated for transparency about self-driving cars.

Current law doesn’t require self-driving car testers to have permission from the government at any level. The law only mandates that a licensed driver is in the front seat.

The third candidate for mayor, Councilwoman Darlene Harris, didn’t return a request for comment Monday.