Uber will begin testing its self-driving vehicles in D.C. today.
Eric Meyhofer, CEO of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, announced the launch Thursday at the Washington Auto Show. Uber will be testing the self-driving cars with high-definition mapping and methodological research throughout the city.
According to a company press release, each car will be operated by two “mission specialists”—humans who are specially trained vehicle operators. They will map and investigate possible on-the-road scenarios that could pose safety challenges or hazardous situations. At first, the cars will be driven manually and a sensor on top of the car will collect data to build high-definition maps, and plan for different occurrences on the road.
The relaunch of Uber’s self-driving testing comes after documents in November revealed that lack of an adequate safety response led to one the company’s self-driving cars striking and killing a woman in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018.
According to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the vehicle recognized the woman as a pedestrian 1.3 seconds before colliding with her, but the computer mode did not allow for the car to use its emergency break maneuvers. Instead, the human operator was expected to intervene—investigators found that the operator in question had been watching television on her phone.
Danielle Burr, head of Uber’s federal affairs, stressed the importance of safety in a post on the company’s Medium page outlining the program’s expansion to D.C. “When we think about safety, it goes beyond solely passenger. We care about keeping everyone on the road safe—whether you’re in one of our self-driving cars or crossing the street in front of me,” Burr writes. Eventually, Burr says that the manually-operated testing will transition into testing the cars autonomously.
Already, Uber has mapped San Francisco, Dallas, and Toronto, and its vehicles drive autonomously in Pittsburgh.
Uber is not the first company to bring autonomous cars to the District. In October 2018, Ford announced its plans to partner with an artificial intelligence company and begin testing self-driving cars in D.C. in 2019, with a goal of a commercial launch by 2021. This past September, WUSA 9 reported that an autonomous Ford Fusion successfully changed lanes on I-66 without the intervention of a human river. And who can forget what appeared to be a self-driving car in Arlington in 2017, that instead turned out to be a driver dressed as a car seat?
With the D.C. Council-approved “Autonomous Vehicle Act of 2012,” the city was the first jurisdiction stateside to allow for the licensing of self-driving car operators, per the Council of State Governments. Under D.C. law, all autonomous vehicles require a manual override that lets drivers take over. In 2017, D.C. announced it had joined a global initiative to get jurisdictions ready for autonomous vehicles.