Uber is reintroducing a handful of self-driving cars on Toronto streets for the first time since a collision in the U.S. put a stop to all operations on public roads.
Starting Thursday, the cars will be driven on Toronto streets and highways on manual mode and operated by a driver, while the passenger controls testing.
“What we are going to be doing is collecting data for training our AI algorithms and testing them, as well as creating technology for high definition maps,” said Uber Advance Technologies Group chief scientist Raquel Urtasun.
“The sensors will be on … however the vehicle is going to be controlled at all times by a vehicle operator that is in the driving seat and another operator on the [passenger] seat which is controlling some of the testing.”
Uber put a halt to all autonomous vehicle programs in Toronto and the United States, after a fatal collision involving a pedestrian and self-driving car from Uber happened in Arizona in March.
Elaine Herzberg, 49, was walking her bicycle outside the crosswalk on a four-lane road in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe when she was struck by the Uber vehicle traveling at about 65 km/h, police said. The car was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel.
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Herzberg later died from her injuries in a hospital, police said.
“That was a very tragic incident,” said Urtasun. “I wish it never happened.”
“We stopped operating on public roads, but that didn’t mean we stopped. We spent all the time in reviewing the process in how we do things such that we revamp all our safety standards.”
Urtansun said Uber has made changes in hiring processes and training programs.
“In everything that we do, safety comes first,” she said.
“There’s a lot of things that have changed, from monitoring all times of the operators to having two operators in the car, and operating much less on the roads and making sure every single mile that we do has a real reason and purpose and it’s accounted for.”
Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, said the public doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of autonomous vehicles.
“The concern is that a lot of people aren’t really sure about the technology,” said Kirk, “but they will get comfortable with time.”
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Companies like Uber, he adds, can help educate the public become more comfortable with the technology.
“Self-driving cars will be much safer than human-driven cars. Self-driving cars don’t get distracted. They don’t text, they don’t get drunk and they are always aware. Any self-driving car has sensors that look 360 degrees around the vehicle 30 times a second and far more awareness than any human can possibly achieve.”
Urtasun said the self-driving vehicles that will be operating in Toronto will have collision mitigation system enabled at all times.
“If you look at human drivers, 1.3 million people die on the roads every year and 94 per cent of that is due to human error. This technology is going to help up reduce those numbers,” Urtasun said.
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“The technology is not ready, so we need to develop the technology but we need to do it in safe manner.”
In addition to reintroducing self-driving vehicles on manual mode on Toronto roads, Uber also announced it will be expanding and moving Uber’s research and development team to Bathurst College Centre in 2019.
In July, Uber had a similar relaunch in Pittsburgh, where self-driving vehicles were reintroduced onto public roads in manual mode only, but on Thursday the company announced they will begin operating self-driving vehicles under full automation in the U.S. city, while having two mission specialists monitoring trips made with the self-driving car.
— With Files from Reuters