In recent years, self-driving tech has moved on so quickly that sometimes you need to take a step back and ask if it’s actually happening – but it’s true, and autonomous cars are already a reality. Here, we look at 15 of the most important moments in the history of one of the major players: Uber.
1. How did it all start? The beginning
When Uber was founded in 2009, it had nothing to do with autonomous cars – and it wasn’t even created as the ride-hailing organizationwe now recognize. Back then, it was conceived of as a service that allowed customers to hire luxury cars for less than the usual full price.
However, by 2012, Uber had launched the ride-hailing service that made the company’s name. At that point, Uber started permitting drivers to offer rides in regular non-luxury cars.
From there, it developed into the system we know todaythat allows people to use an app to call a car – for prices usually much lower than in a taxi.
2. Start Of Autonomous Car Research
Uber’s service proved so popular that the company was soon represented in many cities, and it wasn’t long before Uber began branching out into other areas –for example, food delivery in 2014 with UberEATS.
However, it was in February 2014 that the company announced by far its most ambitious venture – that was the date the company went public with its intention to move into the field of autonomous car technology.
This may have seemed like a bold step for a company that had made its name as a taxi hailing service.
However, what was intriguing was the fact that the announcement was made in exactly the same week as an announcement by technology giant Google that they were also making a move into the same field. This could hardly have been a coincidence.
3. Launch of the Advanced Technology Centre in Pittsburgh
Uber decided to base its research into automated self-driving cars at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where the company set up its Advanced Technology Center.
At first, Uber’s new research center was welcomed by the city of Pittsburgh and was expected to create many new jobs within the technology sector there. However, it wasn’t without controversy.
It wasn’t long before many of the staff from the university began to be transferred across to Uber’s facility, and there were accusations that the ride-sharing company was “poaching” some of the university’s top minds.
4. Uber launches its first fleet of cars
Uber’s first fleet of 20 self-driving test cars wasunveiled in 2015. The original cars were Ford Fusions with “Uber Advanced Technologies Centre” displayed boldly along the sides and distinctive apparatus mounted on the roof.They soon became a common sighton the streets of Pittsburgh.
Each car was equipped with 20 cameras, seven lasers, a GPS system, radar and lidar technology, the latter being a system of pulsating light that allows a computer to build up a 3D image of its surroundings.
These combined to allow the self-driving car to construct a picture of the world around it, letting it navigate its way safely around the streets. Of course, despite advanced tech to enable the cars to drive by themselves, human safety drivers were always present to take over in case of emergencies.
5. Uber launches its first commercial self-driving car service in Pittsburgh
Only a year later, in 2016, Uber launched its first commercial service, using the same Ford Fusion cars – although the safety drivers were still necessary. Pittsburgh mayor, Bill Peduto, who had been instrumental in bringing Uber to the city in the first place, was one of the first customers.
6. Uber switches to Volvo
In December of 2016, Uber launched its second generation of automated cars, this time choosing to use a fleet of 100 Volvo XC90 SUVs.
At this time, 16 of these autonomous Volvos began testing on the streets of San Francisco. However, the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked their license to operate, and the company was forced to move the tests to the city of Tempe in Arizona.
7. Uber builds a whole (fake) city
At the same time as running commercial trials with automated vehicles under the supervision of human drivers, in 2017, Uber also set about creating a whole fake “city”, to which they gave the name ofAlmono.
Located in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh and equipped with trees, roundabouts and even automated pedestrians, Almono allowed Uber to test self-driving tech as well as to train human emergency drivers before they were allowed to supervise automated cars in the “real world”.
8. Unpromising beginnings
The results from the initial testing of automated technology were not so promising. From the early days, many stories emerged of the self-driven cars behaving erratically.
For example, one car was reported to have driven the wrong way down a one-way street until the human driver took over and turned it around.
There were also many reports of the cars being involved in a number of minor scrapes and collisions.
Of course, with such ground-breaking and ambitious technology as self-driving cars, a few teething problems were only to be expected.
However, the early results only showed that Uber still had some way to go before their cars could be fully trusted to drive themselves – and paying customers – around the streets of a major city.
9. The first major accident
In March of 2017, what some might consider the inevitable finally happened. On the streets of Tempe in Arizona, one of Uber’s self-driving cars was involved in what was its first major collision with a car being driven by a member of the public.
This accident was followed by a thorough investigation and it was established that the situation had been the fault of the other driver and not of the Uber car. The accident had been caused when the other car had failed to yield the right of way to the Uber car at a junction.
Although no serious injuries resulted from the crash, the Uber car was flipped over and ended up lying on its side.
Although on this occasion, the responsibility laywith driver of the other car, it could still perhaps be argued that in some ways this demonstrated the limitations of the technology.
Perhaps a human driver would have been able to anticipate the unexpected behavior of the other car more proactively and could have taken preventative action.
In any case, the wholly unsurprising reaction of the company was to temporarily withdraw its fleet of cars from public roads pending the results of further investigations and research.
Eventually, after Uber concluded their investigations, their cars were once again allowed back onto the roads.
10. New CEO appointed
In August of 2017, Uber appointed a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, an Iranian-American businessman who had previously headed Expedia. He replaced Uber founder Travis Kalanick. At the time of writing, he is still the current CEO of Uber.
11. A fatal accident in Tempe
Having allowed their cars back onto the road following the incident that saw one of Uber’s self-driving carsinvolved in the collision, a year later and in the same city, much worse was to come.
In March 2018, one of Uber’s cars was involved in a fatal accident. An Uber car that was in self-drive mode failed to stop when a pedestrian crossed the road in front of it, running into her at speed.
The victim, whose name was Elaine Herzberg, was rushed to hospital but later succumbed to her injuries.
Although self-driving cars belonging to other companies had previously been involved in fatal accidents where passengers or human drivers of the cars had lost their lives, this marked the first time a self-driving car had killed a member of the public who had nothing to do with the program.
Uber immediately suspended all road testing and commercial services involving their automated cars.
12. The initial results of the investigation – Uber reaches a settlement
Once the investigation had been carried out, the facts from the investigation began to emerge, and initially, there was some disagreement among local authorities as to whether the pedestrian or the car was to blame.
The facts that were established included the following:
- The victim was not crossing the road at a proper crossway when the accident occurred
- The accident happened at night, limiting visibility
- The human supervisor in the car was watching a video on her telephone when the accident occurred
However, despite any uncertainty over who was to blame, Uber quickly reached a settlement with the victim’s family.
13. Safety systems found to have been switched off
It later emerged that in the period running up to the fatal accident, certain safety features had been disactivated in Uber’s cars in preparation for a potential demonstration for the new CEO.
Part of the problem had been that the cars were occasionally prone to some erratic behavior, sometimes braking hard or swerving and making the ride uncomfortable. In an effort to improve the passenger experience, the systems responsible for these behaviors had been turned off.
Although the swerving ability was reactivated before the accident occurred, the hard braking function had not, and in the event of an emergency, it was the responsibility of the human supervisor to bring the vehicle to astop.
Furthermore, even though the human supervisor would be required to take action in such an emergency, it was also revealed that the system for alerting the driver to take such actions was also disabled at the time of the accident.
Compounding these facts, it has also been suggested that a culture of poor internal communication within Uber may have played a role.
Specifically, since communication between teams was lacking, it was possible for the team responsible for turning safety systems on and off to fail to notify drivers which systems were functioningand which were inactive.
This is perhaps backed up by the images in the video of the human supervisor in the car who can be seen looking elsewhere and not paying attention to the road. From the video, it is clear that she didn’t see the pedestrian crossing the road until the very last moment when it was already too late.
14. Safety review and waiting to restart testing
It was reported in November that the company had applied for permission to resume testing.
As part of the action taken in the aftermath of the fatal accident, the company commissioned an external safety review by the law firm LeClairRyan. Many improvements from this review have already been implemented.
In an effort to avoid further tragedy, Uber has also made it policy that cars should once again always have two human supervisors – now known as “mission specialists” – who will be able to take over the controls in an emergency.
This had been the case before, but by the time of the accident, two human supervisors were no longer deemed necessary, and one was thought to be sufficient.
15. Back on the roads
At the time of writing, after a nine-month break, Uber’s cars have resumed testing and are back on the roads of Pittsburgh’s Strip district in reduced numbers. It was reported that resumed testing is to be much more modest than what was previously being attempted.
Whereas before, testing was being carried out in four cities, with cars trusted to drive at speeds of up to 55mph, now they will operate only on a small stretch of road in Pittsburgh and won’t be able to exceed speeds of 25mph.
Furthermore, they will not be able to drive at night – the fatal accident occurred at night, something that was partly responsible for what happened – and they won’t be allowed to operate in wet conditions.
Self-driving cars inevitable…eventually
For the moment, Uber is pressing ahead with self-driving cars. Uber is currently a vastly unprofitable organization, but perhaps this new technology will help the company turn things around. What seems sure is that at some point in the future, automated driverless cars will become the norm.