Here’s how Uber responds to crashes involving autonomous cars

Uber recently said it hit the million-miles mark for its autonomous cars — and that each mile helps make the fleet safer.

Jared Wickerham / for the incline
MJ Slaby

The number of autonomous miles doesn’t determine a vehicle’s safety — but each mile does help improve safety, according to Uber’s head of systems safety.

Sure, the million-miles mark is momentous and an indication of progress, Noah Zych told reporters at a media event today, marking the one-year anniversary of Uber pilot program allowing riders in autonomous cars.

“But it’s also no secret that a million miles driven doesn’t actually tell you about how safe our self-driving vehicles are,” he said, adding that’s true for the entire industry, not just Uber.

For its one-year anniversary, Uber announced Sept. 14 that it had logged more than a million autonomous miles and more than 30,000 passenger trips since the pilot launched. Four days later, a crash involving a self-driving Uber in the South Side grounded the fleet for several hours.

Those numbers include Pittsburgh, as well as Tempe, Ariz. (where a February crash grounded the fleet for nearly three days) and San Francisco. Uber’s autonomous driving and rides have been happening the longest here. Rides are currently also offered in Tempe, but not San Francisco.

However, Zych said, a million miles does inform developers as to what the car is good at, what it’s bad at and what unusual scenarios it has encountered such as how to react to “unorthodox parking maneuvers” on a Saturday in the Strip District.

So while miles don’t equal safety, miles do equal tools to improve safety, he said.

Monday’s crash

After the Monday morning crash, Uber said it conducted an investigation before returning the autonomous fleet to the roads, but didn’t detail what that included.

It was the second time the Pittsburgh fleet was grounded due to a crash, but the first time the wreck happened here. Police said the car was not in autonomous mode, and no one was injured.

The company today outlined its general process following a crash. According to Zych:

  1. Make sure everyone — Uber employees and riders, as well as other people involved — is safe.
  2. Start an internal investigation by gathering data from the car to address questions including: Were the vehicle operators doing the correct thing? Was the software at fault? (Zych said in all incidents so far, the employees and software were not at fault.)
  3. Work with local authorities to provide them with information at the scene and allow police to determine fault. In the case of Monday’s crash, where the car was not in autonomous mode, public safety spokesperson Sonya Toler said the police investigation was no different from any other crash investigation.
  4. Follow up and cooperate with any questions from police and federal regulators, as well as provide them with Uber’s assessment of what happened.

Continuing the conversation

Uber also has to convince regulators, lawmakers and the general public that the vehicles are safe and build trust, Zych said.

More than a million people — thousands of them in the U.S. — die each year in car accidents and millions more are injured, said Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.

“We can fix that. We can make that better,” Meyhofer said.

Zych said the company is working with experts and others to have more conversations around safety. Vehicle operators go through training to make sure they understand the system and how to react if the system makes a mistake, he said.

After the crash in the South Side on Monday, two city council members also stressed the need for a public conversation about safety.

Uber has to explain the research and work that goes into safety instead of just saying the autonomous vehicle is ready to go, Zych said. It needs to be “not just something we come up with, but something everyone believes is credible and safe.”