It’s been one year, one million autonomous miles and 30,000 car trips since the launch of the self-driving cars at Uber. And yet, “It’s like dog years, so much has happened,” said Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber ATG. “We’re going really hard here.”
At a media event yesterday at Uber’s beautifully renovated headquarters in the Strip District, the company rolled out the Xenon — the latest iteration of the self-driving Volvo XC90 — which will hit the streets in the coming months.
While it looks a lot like the first iteration, dubbed the Krypton, they have made numerous improvements based on “data training” captured over those million miles in the two pilot cities of Phoenix and Pittsburgh.
One change that will take place now through 2018 is the elimination of the second Uber driver in the passenger seat. Uber’s autonomous cars will soon have only one Uber driver, behind the wheel, as they did in the test drives offered to media yesterday. It’s one step closer to true self-driving cars.
The single driver can take over operation by touching the steering wheel or the brake, or when a beep is issued by the system alerting the driver to take command.
During our test drive yesterday, that beep sounded three times — once when a truck was stopped in an oncoming lane, for instance, and another time over a bridge for a reason the driver couldn’t figure out. At that moment, that is. The software would later inform him.
At one point we sat through a green light even though the way ahead seemed clear. Why weren’t we moving? “We’re turning right and if we did it now we would create gridlock,” said the driver, who noted that these cars “are very polite” as well as very safety-conscious.
A lot has changed and a lot hasn’t in the last year, noted Meyhofer. What hasn’t changed is 1.3 million people are killed each year in car accidents — 34, 000 just in the U.S., he said. “We can fix that. We can make that better and we can make that better with this,” he added, pointing to the two shiny new Volvos next to him.
In the video Uber showed, it is noted that self-driving cars don’t get distracted, they don’t text and they don’t fall asleep behind the wheel.
The Uber fleet, now 201 strong, is still very much a work in progress. While the new car might look very familiar, there have been a ton of improvements made under the hood.
The 30,000 road trips capturing data the past year, including “micro-behaviors such as departures from a lane,” have informed them along the way.
“[The cars] tell us things we’re doing well and they tell us things we still need to work on,” said Noah Zych, Uber’s head of system safety. “They capture some of the unusual scenarios — for example, how to figure out how to react to some of the unorthodox parking maneuvers in the Strip District on a Saturday morning.
“In time, as we observe more and more of these metrics, we’ll actually be able to credibly determine how safe our vehicle is operating and do that in a way that doesn’t require hundreds of millions of miles,” said Zych.
The engineers at Uber are now designing for scale while improving software and upgrading systems so “cameras can do their jobs when covered in mud.”
The trunk is now free of computers and equipment so passengers can load it up with suitcases. And a new iPad experience allows passengers (back seat only for now) to view moving objects such as pedestrians, cars and bicyclists in orange, while fixed structures such as buildings and trees are shown in blue.
The question many Pittsburghers ask is: how do they get to ride in one of these vehicles? While there’s no way to request an autonomous car from the Uber app, you’ll increase your chances significantly by requesting certain routes: downtown to Shadyside, for example, which is well-mapped. Other mapped neighborhoods include the Strip District, Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield, Garfield, Lawrenceville, North Shore and Point Breeze, with more to come.