Self-driving Ubers to return in Pittsburgh: What we know (and what we don’t)

Mayor Bill Peduto was not pleased, that’s for sure.

The "headgear" of Uber's newest self-driving vehicles.

The "headgear" of Uber's newest self-driving vehicles.

Jared Wickerham / for the incline
MJ Slaby

Updated, 5:25 p.m.

Uber’s goal of returning its self-driving fleet to Pittsburgh streets this summer elicited a stern response from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto that led to a back-and-forth of who said what when.

After a fatal pedestrian crash in March in Arizona, Uber pulled its self-driving cars there, as well as in Pittsburgh, Toronto and San Francisco. Roughly a week after the crash, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s ability to test the vehicles in the state. Uber also didn’t renew its testing permit in California once it expired March 31.

On Wednesday, the company notified 300 workers in Arizona that it was ending its self-driving program there, with plans to instead focus on San Francisco and Pittsburgh, The Arizona Republic reported. Per an internal email from Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group and formerly of Carnegie Mellon University, the company’s goal is to return to testing in Pittsburgh this summer.

Uber issued this statement:

“We’re committed to self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the near future. In the meantime, we remain focused on our top-to-bottom safety review, having brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture.”

So what happens now? Here’s a look at what’s occurred and what’s remains unknown.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

What we know

Peduto wasn’t pleased.

In response to the news, Mayor Bill Peduto — who was in Milan, Italy on Wednesday during a trip to Europe for two international technology conferences — released a stern statement, blasting Uber and outlining two “required conditions,” both regarding speed limit for Uber’s return to testing:

I made it clear to Uber officials after the Arizona crash that a full federal investigation had to be completed, with strong rules for keeping streets safe, before I would agree with the company to begin testing on Pittsburgh streets again.

In talks with company officials, I and the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure additionally required conditions with Uber before Pittsburgh would agree to testing. The conditions included that:

Automated vehicles would never exceed 25 miles-per-hour in the city, on any street, regardless of legal speed limits. (The probability of pedestrians surviving a collision is much higher at speeds of under 25 mph. Even at 30 mph fatality rates increase dramatically.)

The company use its driver app to alert human drivers when they are exceeding speed limits, so human drivers adhere to speed limits as well.

Peduto and Uber already didn’t have the greatest relationship.

The mayor was a strong supporter of Uber when the company started having self-driving cars pick up users of its ride-sharing app in September 2016. But the relationship soured.

In “2016, our relationship with Uber was strictly take. There was no give back,” Peduto told The Incline in September 2017. He added at the time that the company had since made changes and was moving in a positive direction.

Peduto’s not the only one who wants conditions for testing.

During the Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit in April, PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards outlined a new action plan to give the department interim oversight over self-driving car testing until a law is enacted. The plan included asking testers for a slew of voluntary information including about the vehicles, operators, testing routes and more.

Richards also announced then that the PennDOT Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force would resume and PennDOT would discuss the interim oversight with testers.

The task force will meet June 15 in Harrisburg, Erin Waters-Trasatt, PennDOT spokesperson, told The Incline on Thursday. She added that prior to that meeting, more than a dozen companies from the automated vehicle industry, including testers, will meet with PennDOT on May 31 in Pittsburgh.

TribLive reported that Uber and PennDOT have met to talk about the requirements.

No laws say Uber has to meet those conditions.

Currently, the only state law that applies to self-driving vehicle testing is that a licensed driver has to be in the driver’s seat of the car.

Because of that, PennDOT doesn’t have the power to suspend testing, JJ Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, previously told The Incline. In outlining her action plan, Richards acknowledged that her asks of testers were voluntary, but added that it’s in the best interest of testers and the industry to work with the public.

The autonomous Uber in Arizona saw the woman it struck and killed.

On Thursday, federal investigators released their preliminary report on the fatal crash in Arizona, the Associated Press reported. Per the report, the autonomous Uber saw Elaine Herzberg about six seconds before hitting her. The vehicle didn’t stop because the emergency break was disabled. Also per the AP, “the driver began steering less than a second before impact but didn’t brake until less than a second after impact.”

Tempe police said Wednesday that the department’s report on the crash is complete, The Arizona Republic reported. It was submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, but has not been released to the public.

The final National Transportation Safety Board report could take a year to complete, per CNET.


Jared Wickerham / for the incline

What we don’t know

Did Uber and Peduto talk about a return to testing?

Per his public statement, Peduto said he learned of the news through social media.

“This is not the way to rebuild a constructive working relationship with local government, especially when facing a public safety matter,” he said.

Uber, however countered by saying that on May 10 and 16, Uber told city leaders about a goal of returning self-driving cars to the streets at the end of June, as long as the city and PennDOT approved.

Peduto responded with:

When exactly will the autonomous Ubers return?

Uber said the goal is this summer, even as early as the end of June. However, the company didn’t offer more specifics.

What will the return of self-driving Ubers look like?

It’s unclear if there will be noticeable differences to the way Uber does its autonomous testing in Pittsburgh, if testing resumes. However, Meyhofer’s email suggests a change:

When we get back on the road, we intend to drive in a much more limited way to test specific use cases in concert with our Software and Hardware development teams.

How will Peduto enforce his required conditions?

Without a change in law, it’s unclear.

Tim McNulty, spokesperson for Peduto, told The Incline in an email “Traffic enforcement is overseen by the state but in this case after the March accident the Mayor thought extra conditions were necessary.”

How will this impact the other companies testing in Pittsburgh?

Other companies didn’t stop testing self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh during Uber’s hiatus, and Peduto told The Incline in March that he expects two more companies to start testing in the city this year.

Will other companies be required to meet the same conditions as Uber?

McNulty said talks have focused on Uber, however, “the city is open to discussing common sense safety measures with other companies.”