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Uber self-driving cars return to SF

But only with humans driving—for now

A self-driving Uber car, parked. Photo by Sundry Photography

SF-based ride hailing company Uber appeared to largely abandon its foray into self-driving cars earlier this year, after one of its automated vehicles killed a pedestrian in Arizona last March.

Now the company has suddenly announced that it’s putting experimental robot vehicles back on the streets in three cities, including in San Francisco.

But Uber says it will only operate vehicles in San Francisco in “manual mode”—ie, with a real human being driving—at least for now.

In a Thursday Medium blog titled “Learning from the past to move forward,” head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group Eric Meyhofer promised to reintroduce the technology to Bay Area roadways gradually:

In addition to resuming self-driving operations in Pittsburgh, we are resuming manual driving in San Francisco and Toronto. Manual driving introduces new scenarios that our system will encounter and allows us to recreate them in a virtual world or on the test track to improve system performance.

This is an important step towards self-driving. We will only pursue a return to road for self-driving in these cities in coordination with federal, state, and local authorities.

Meyhofer’s statement did not directly address why it had suspended road tests in the first place—49-year-old Tempe, Arizona resident Elaine Herzberg died after an Uber self-driving car hit her crossing the road.

A self-driving Uber car pulling out of the garage. Photo by Dllu/Wikicommons

According to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the vehicle detected Herzberg six seconds before the collision.

But the car’s operating system was unsure what precisely was in its path: “System software classified the pedestrian as an unknown object, as a vehicle, and then as a bicycle, with varying expectations of future travel path.”

(Herzberg was walking a bicycle at the time, which may have contributed to the confusion.)

Eventually the car switched over to manual control to let its human safety driver determine what to do, but only 1.3 seconds before the eventual fatal collision.

In the fallout of the incident—the first time a self-driving vehicle has killed a human being—Uber let its permits to operate in California lapse.

The company plans to resume on-road experimentation mostly in Dogpatch, Potrero Hill, and India Basin.

No word yet on how long it may be before Uber decides to let its self-driving cars self-drive on Bay Area streets again, but it’s obviously in the cards somewhere down the line.