- Uber‘s self-driving vehicles were having trouble meeting the company’s internal goals in the months before last week’s fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona, according to The New York Times.
- Employees were reportedly anxious about impressing CEO Dara Khosrowshahi with a test ride that was planned for April.
- Some were concerned when the company moved from having two employees in each self-driving vehicle to one.
The vehicles, which drove autonomously but had backup drivers ready to intervene if necessary, reportedly had difficulty meeting a goal of 13 miles driven for every intervention from the backup driver. That number paled in comparison with Waymo and General Motors, which reported more than 5,500 miles and 1,200 miles per intervention in California in 2017.
Uber’s vehicles also reportedly struggled in construction zones and near tall vehicles.
Employees wanted to impress Dara Khosrowshahi
According to The Times, Uber employees were anxious to impress CEO Dara Khosrowshahi with a test ride he had planned to take in one of the company’s self-driving vehicles in April.
Khosrowshahi had reportedly considered eliminating Uber’s self-driving program when he took over as CEO from Travis Kalanick in August. While he eventually determined that the program had long-term value, employees reportedly wanted to use his test ride as an opportunity to demonstrate the program’s progress.
In the months before Khosrowshahi’s planned visit, the company had increased the rate at which it accumulated test miles, moving from 1 million test miles in the year that ended in September to over 3 million at the time of the accident.
Some employees had safety concerns
Around October, Uber reportedly took steps to get its self-driving program to the point where it could launch a ride-sharing service “as quickly as possible,” moving from having two employees in each vehicle to one. The move reportedly made some employees nervous and led them to tell managers it could lower the odds of the operator remaining aware of the vehicle’s surroundings over long periods of time.
An Uber representative told Business Insider the company moved to having one employee in most vehicles “slowly” and the second employee’s role had been to collect feedback about the vehicle’s performance, rather than to ensure its safety. The person also said the company used two employees “for tests in which detailed in-vehicle feedback is important.”
The company’s self-driving ambitions are in doubt
After the accident, a video released by law enforcement showed the operator looking away from the road in the moments before the accident. While local authorities first indicated that the accident may not be Uber’s fault, some experts think the video hinted at flaws in the technology Uber’s self-driving vehicles use to interpret their surroundings.
Last week, Uber said it would stop self-driving tests in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto. The company had previously expressed a goal of launching an autonomous ride-hailing service by mid-2019; it’s unclear whether that timeline will now change.
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