On Friday night, one of Uber’s self-driving cars, a Volvo SUV, was involved in a three vehicle collision in Tempe, Arizona.
The Arizona accident:
According to local police, there were no injuries. Uber’s vehicle was not responsible for the incident, another car failed to yield to Uber’s vehicle, causing the Volvo to flip on its side. Uber’s car was in autonomous mode with two designated “safety” drivers up front at the time of the crash, the back seat was empty.
Uber is investigating the incident, and meanwhile it will suspend tests of autonomous vehicles in Arizona and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In late February, Uber self-driving cars began picking up passengers in Tempe. The inaugural rider was Arizona governor Doug Ducey. After a brief and disastrous pilot in San Francisco at the end of December, Uber moved its driverless tests to Arizona.
Uber defied regulators in California when it refused getting a testing permit for its autonomous vehicles, arguing the rules didn’t really apply. However, one of Uber’s self-driving cars was caught running a red light within hours of being put into service for real passengers. Publically the company blamed human error for the incident, but the New York Times acquired internal company documents saying their cars had failed to recognize that red light along with five others.
Uber in turmoil:
The timing of the accident is bad for the company. Uber is in the middle of different scandals, from sexual harassment allegations to senior-level talent leaving in droves, as well as the questions being raised concerning the conduct and leadership abilities of CEO Travis Kalanick.
Uber’s self-driving program is also at risk of being shut down due to a lawsuit brought in February by Waymo, the self-driving car project created by Google parent Alphabet. The suit claims that Uber and Otto, which is a startup Uber acquired last summer, stole trade secrets from Waymo. Uber calls it “baseless.”
Uber’s plan for long-term success has self-driving technology at its cornerstone. Theoretically, operating and maintaining robot cars will be cheaper than Uber’s current human workforce. However, there are doubts cast on the health of Uber’s autonomous vehicle program. Since November, at least 20 engineers have quit, and company documents show that Uber’s self-driving cars currently need to be handled by their human safety drivers roughly once every 0.8 miles.
Uber’s decision to halt tests in Arizona and Pittsburgh after the accident in Tempe show that the program is on rocky grounds. Uber has said safety is a priority in its driverless testing but that’s been tough to square with the company’s hasty debuts and tendency to be evasive when questioned like after the red-light incident in San Francisco. Otto founder, Anthony Levandowski, who became head of Uber’s self-driving program last summer, disregards regulatory authority as evidenced by the running joke at Otto “safety third.”