Uber to continue self-driving vehicle program in Dallas

Uber plans to test its fleet of autonomous Volvo SUVs in Dallas.
Image: Volvo

Uber will continue its self-driving car program in Dallas, Texas this November, according to The Verge. Initially, human drivers will operate the vehicles in the city’s downtown area. Uber plans to collect mapping data and capture driver scenarios that engineers will replicate in simulations. The rideshare company isn’t saying whether unmanned self-driving cars will drive in Dallas anytime soon.

“The data we collect will inform our next steps — we may not look to test our self-driving system in Dallas immediately following this first round of data gathering,” head of Uber ATG strategy Austin Geidt said in a Medium post. “While we are certainly excited by this possibility, we are also committed to ensuring that every mile we drive on public roads contributes meaningfully to our development work.”

Moving Forward with Caution

Uber is moving its self-driving car program forward with caution for good reason. In March 2018, one of its autonomous vehicles struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona as she walked her bike across the street. The vehicle only had one driver behind the wheel and police say she was streaming “The Voice” on her phone when the accident occurred.

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Uber responded by suspending its fleet of autonomous vehicles and temporarily shut down the testing program. Tempe authorities eventually cleared Uber of any wrongdoing. However, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) still has an open investigation. The NTSB will release its findings later this year. Uber has also settled a lawsuit with the Hertzberg family for an undisclosed sum.

The company officially resumed autonomous vehicle testing nine months after the incident with a fleet of Volvo SUVs in a closed-loop of downtown Pittsburgh. The move was probably not arbitrary as Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group is headquartered in The Steel City.

Improving Autonomy

So, what is the autonomous vehicle community as a whole doing to prevent accidents like the one that happened in Tempe? One example is the work of the U.S.-German company Recogni. Recently, the startup launched with $25 million to develop its innovative “Vision Cognition System.”

The system involves a suite of image sensors that identify objects like bikers and pedestrians from up to 650 feet away in real-time. Recogni is hopeful that its new technology will usher in robotic taxis by 2024.

In the meantime, Uber plans to begin testing its third-generation, self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs. Unlike previous generations of the car, the new vehicles will roll out of the factory with Uber’s self-driving technology. The SUVs will still have steering wheels and pedals. But operating without a driver is the ultimate goal.

Uber and Volvo believe that redundancy is the key to achieving full autonomy. The companies included a myriad of systems focusing on this in the new vehicles. “If any of the primary systems should fail for some reason, the back-up system is designed to immediately act to bring the car to a stop,” Uber said.

The new tech should make Uber’s self-driving cars safer, but only trials will tell. Uber plans to begin testing in 2020. Whether or not the new SUVs will roll on their own through Dallas remains to be seen.