Autonomous Uber Cars Still Need Human Help

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Uber is testing autonomous cars across the country and has run into a few issues. Cars in San Francisco were pulled from the streets in a matter of days over a disagreement with the state over permitting. Cars in other cities are still on the road, but are needing a surprising amount of help from their human drivers.

State laws require a human driver behind the wheel because this is all still testing. Fully autonomous cars without a driver aren’t allowed, although that may soon change if proposed legislation passes in states like California. When a human takes over, it’s called disengagement. The less disengagement the better, but unfortunately for Uber, their cars are experiencing disengagement at a rate of once every mile.

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This is a problem because autonomous technology is a big deal for ride-hailing services like Uber. Human drivers get a share of the money collected for every ride, but ditching the human lets the whole fare stay with the company. Making autonomous cars work stands to increase Uber’s profitability.

The reasons for disengagement are exactly what you’d expect. Drivers took over because of unclear lane markings, missed turns, and poor weather that interfered with the car’s autonomous systems. They also took over when the autonomous systems weren’t smooth due to hard acceleration or stops.

There’s a second level of driver intervention and it’s the one that makes everyone nervous. Anytime a human driver takes over to avoid hitting a person or an object is labelled a critical intervention. The good news is critical interventions in autonomous Ubers happened at a much lower rate than disengagements.

The average number of times a driver took over to avoid an accident was roughly once every 200 hundred miles. That’s a much better rate, but it shows there is still room for improvement, which brings us to Uber’s second problem.

The number of critical interventions was at frequent as once every 114 miles, so it looks like there’s been a big improvement. The recent 200-mile statistic is good, but it’s also inconsistent. Week-to-week, the numbers rise and fall rather than showing a steady increase over time. They need to be improving, rather than holding steady.

Uber is currently testing autonomous cars in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California. That’s a relatively small test group. Their 43 cars covered just over 20,000 miles during the first week of March. Other weeks this year that number was as low as 5,000 miles.

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Adding to Uber’s challenges is a lawsuit filed by Waymo to block Uber’s autonomous car testing completely. They claim Uber is using stolen materials and want all testing stopped until the case is settled. For now, autonomous Ubers are still on the streets, but between the lawsuit and technological obstacles, the days of fully autonomous Ubers aren’t coming anytime soon.

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Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin