Uber’s self-driving vehicles are back on Pittsburgh streets in autonomous mode

You’ll only see them in the Strip District for now.

Jared Wickerham / for the incline
MJ Slaby

Uber’s self-driving Volvos will be back in autonomous mode on Pittsburgh streets starting today, the company announced.

The return to testing will be gradual, starting with one or two cars on the streets at any given time and will not include picking up ride-share passengers, per the company.

On Monday, PennDOT approved Uber as an authorized tester of autonomous vehicles in Allegheny County. The approval is valid for one year.

The testing authorization is part of a plan that PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards announced in April to give the department interim oversight of autonomous vehicle testing until legislation can be passed. Approval to test is not legally required, however, officials stressed that it was in the best interest of companies to comply and work with the public before legislation requires it.

Additional authorized testers in Allegheny County include Aurora Innovation, Argo AI, and Carnegie Mellon University.

According to Uber, testing in self-driving mode will only happen between Uber Advanced Technologies Group locations in the Strip District, a roughly one-mile loop between 31st and 34th streets. Testing will only be done during daylight hours on weekdays and not on holidays or during bad weather.

However, Uber stressed that these parameters may change as time goes on, but didn’t provide a timeline for expanded testing.

Each vehicle will have two Uber “mission specialists,” and there will be a limit of four hours behind the wheel per driver per workday with breaks at least every two hours.

Previously, Uber tested its vehicles in at least 12 city neighborhoods as well as along McKnight Road in the North Hills and had started to deploy some vehicles with one operator.

Uber’s return to autonomous testing ends a nine-month hiatus that started in March when the company pulled all of its self-driving vehicles from the streets following a fatal crash in Arizona where a self-driving Uber hit and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg. The 49-year-old died of her injuries at the hospital.

Per a police report, the safety driver of the autonomous Uber, Rafaela Vasquez, was watching “The Voice” moments before the crash, AZ Central reported.

In July, Uber returned its vehicles to Pittsburgh’s streets, but only in manual mode and with new safeguards.

Earlier this month, The Information reported that a self-driving Uber swerved off the road and onto the sidewalk in Pittsburgh, but a manager’s report about that and other incidents was ignored by Uber executives and lawyers. City leaders, including Mayor Bill Peduto, are working to find a way for self-driving vehicle testers to report incidents that don’t require a police report, per the Post-Gazette.

Since the fatal crash, Uber has made a number of changes to its safety and protocol around self-driving vehicles. This included revising the vehicle operator roles, as well as requiring new training for operators. Vehicles also now have a driver monitoring system to detect a distracted operator.

“Before any vehicles are on public roads, they must pass a series of more than 70 scenarios without safety-related failures on our test track. We are confident we’ve met that bar as we reintroduce self-driving vehicles to Pittsburgh roadways today,” Eric Meyhofer, head of the Uber ATG wrote in a blog post published today.

Uber will also return its self-driving vehicles to the streets in Toronto and San Francisco today, but in manual mode only with two mission specialists in the vehicle.