Uber’s human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous-car projects.
SAN FRANCISCO — Uber’s robotic vehicle project was not living up to expectations months before a self-driving car operated by the company struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.
The cars were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles like big rigs. Uber’s human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous-car projects.
Waymo, formerly the self-driving car project of Google, said that in tests on roads in California last year, its cars went an average of nearly 5,600 miles before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer out of trouble. As of March, Uber was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per “intervention” in Arizona, according to 100 pages of company documents obtained by The New York Times and two people familiar with the company’s operations in the Phoenix area but not permitted to speak publicly about it.
Uber’s test drivers were being asked to do more — going on solo runs when they had worked in pairs within the same car. There also was pressure to live up to a goal to offer a driverless-car service by the end of the year and to impress top executives.
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Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, who was previously Expedia’s CEO, was expected to visit Arizona in April, and leaders of the company’s development group in the Phoenix area wanted to give him a glitch-free ride in an autonomous car. Khosrowshahi’s trip was called “Milestone 1: Confidence” in the company documents.
Tech companies like Uber, Waymo and Lyft, and automakers like General Motors and Toyota, have spent billions developing self-driving cars in the belief the market for them could one day be worth trillions of dollars.
The crash, which occurred Sunday night, was a major setback for Uber, which has been trying to improve its image since Khosrowshahi replaced Travis Kalanick as the company’s chief executive in a messy transfer of power in August. In February, Uber also settled a long-standing legal fight with Waymo.
On Monday, Uber halted autonomous car tests in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. It is not clear when the company will revive them.
The Tempe Police Department said it was investigating the crash and has not determined whether the vehicle was at fault. A Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicle equipped with Uber’s sensing technology struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, while it was going 40 mph in a 45 mph zone. According to the police, the SUV, with one safety driver and operating in autonomous mode, did not slow down before impact.
A video shot from the vehicle’s dashboard camera showed the safety driver looking down, away from the road. It also appeared that the driver’s hands were not hovering above the steering wheel, which is what drivers are instructed to do so they can quickly retake control of the car. Herzberg, pushing a bicycle across the street, appeared in the camera right before she was hit.
“As we develop self-driving technology, safety is our primary concern every step of the way,” said Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman. “We’re heartbroken by what happened this week, and our cars remain grounded.”
Uber has been testing its self-driving cars in a regulatory vacuum in Arizona. There are few federal rules governing the testing of autonomous cars. Unlike California, where Uber had been testing since spring 2017, Arizona state officials had taken a hands-off approach to autonomous vehicles and did not require companies to disclose how their cars were performing.
Waymo and Cruise, a self-driving car company owned by GM, reported their “intervention” numbers to California regulators. Uber’s goals in Arizona were mentioned in internal documents — Arizona does not have reporting requirements — and it has not been testing self-driving cars in California long enough to be required to report them.
Uber’s first road tests in its self-driving car effort, code-named Project Roadrunner, occurred in Pittsburgh in September 2016. The Phoenix area was added a year ago, and it quickly became the company’s main testing ground, with 400 employees and more than 150 autonomous cars driving local roads because of “favorable regulatory environment, favorable weather conditions,” according to a company document.
When Khosrowshahi took over as Uber’s chief executive, he had considered shutting down the self-driving car operations, according to two other people familiar with Khosrowshahi’s thinking. But he became convinced it was important to Uber’s long-term prospects.
By September 2017, Uber’s autonomous cars had driven 1 million miles in a year nationwide. Uber tallied its second million in 100 days and added its next million at an even faster clip, according to company documents.
Early on in Phoenix, there were two groups of test drivers. A smaller group “stressed” the cars by putting them in challenging situations where, without human intervention, they would have crashed.
A larger group of drivers was focused on picking up customers in the autonomous vehicles. Those drivers were expected to pay more attention to little details, often taking control to prevent a “bad experience” like hard braking, according to a company document.
Around October, Uber merged the two groups to get to where it could offer a truly driverless car service to customers “as quickly as possible.” The customer pickup service was mostly dropped so drivers could focus on accumulating miles and gathering data to help the system become more reliable.
Around the same time, Uber moved from two employees in every car to one. The paired employees had been splitting duties: one ready to take over if the autonomous system failed and another to keep an eye on what the computers were detecting.
Waymo had also moved from two operators at all times to one in some situations in late 2015, said Johnny Luu, a Waymo spokesman. Waymo still uses two test drivers when it is adding new systems or moving to a new location.
But Uber’s autonomous cars are not operating nearly as well as those of its competitors. Cruise reported to California regulators that it went more than 1,200 miles per intervention. After its strong California results, Waymo is testing cars in Chandler, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, with no safety drivers.
Uber was planning to seek regulatory approval by December to start a self-driving car service in Arizona, according to company documents. Uber said the vehicles would have to be safer than human drivers before they would commercialize it. They would not operate around the clock and would stop for bad weather or traffic. And the service did not need to prove “longer-term financial viability.”
Already, one milestone will be missed. Khosrowshahi will not travel to Phoenix next month because of scheduling problems that came up before the crash, Kallman said. But it is unclear how the crash will ultimately affect Uber’s plans for autonomous vehicles.
“The collection of bad news around Uber creates a reputation in people’s minds,” said Michael Ramsey, an automotive analyst at Gartner. “Every other company would get a black eye, too, but they might be forgiven. For Uber, it’s going to be hard to shake.”