Uber was involved in a major controversial episode back in March, as one of its self-driving cars had killed a pedestrian in Arizona, which caused the company to suspend the use of its self-driving cars on public roads so as to avoid any similar incidents.
Now, about four months later, the ride-hailing company is putting its fleet of autonomous cars back on the road, but they won't actually be driving themselves. The vehicles will return to the road in manual mode, for the time being, requiring that a human driver - which the company is calling a mission specialist - steers the car the whole time. A second specialist will sit in the passenger seat to document notable events.
To avoid unfortunate incidents as the one in Arizona, Uber has taken some steps to ensure that the self-driving cars are as safe as possible even with a human driver at the wheel:
- Real-time driver monitoring will be implemented, detecting when the mission specialist behind the wheel may not be paying attention and alerting them with a sound. A remote monitor will also be warned of inattentive behavior and take action if necessary.
- The collision avoidance systems are now enabled. After the accident in March, it was discovered that the company's autonomous car wasn't configured to brake when it detected objects on the road, which may have caused the accident.
- The in-car screens have had elements redesigned to minimize driver distractions
- Drivers have undergone further training and a new system has been implemented requiring the two mission specialist to switch positions throughout their shift.
While the cars will be driven in manual mode for now, the company aims to use the data collected during the next few months to improve its self-driving even further. Uncommon scenarios and occurrences encountered by human drivers will more easily be simulated in virtual environments and test tracks, allowing the company to better train its software. Maps will also be continuously updated with the data during this time.
Uber seems to be playing it safe with the return of autonomous cars to public roads, which is only natural considering the gravity of the incident earlier this year. Only time will tell if the changes made to its self-driving program will be enough to regain the public trust.