Uber quietly housed a fleet of self-driving cars in San Francisco in 2016.


James Martin/CNET

Uber’s self-driving cars are back on San Francisco’s streets in full autonomous mode after a two-year hiatus. The move comes after one of the company’s cars was involved in a fatal accident, the first known pedestrian death caused by a vehicle in autonomous mode, in Arizona in 2018. 

The company said the return of its self-driving cars to San Francisco, which begins Tuesday, is going to be limited and done with caution.

“Our testing area will be limited in scope to start,” an Uber spokeswoman said. “But we look forward to scaling up our efforts in the months ahead and learning from the difficult but informative road conditions that the Bay Area has to offer.” 

To start, Uber said it will have just two Volvo XC90 self-driving cars on the road that will be accompanied by two safety drivers in the front seats. The vehicles will drive on select public streets, only operate during daylight hours and won’t carry passengers. The company said that after it completes an infrastructure update to its system, it’ll expand its program in the city. 

After the fatal crash in Arizona, Uber’s self-driving program fell under the scrutiny of local police, lawmakers and federal investigators. The company pulled all its autonomous vehicles from public roads and shuttered its Arizona operations at that time. In November, government officials released their findings on the main cause of the crash, saying the vehicle operator failed to monitor the road, Uber had an “inadequate safety culture” and the federal government hadn’t properly regulated the industry. 

What happened that night was captured in a video from the car’s dashboard camera. The footage shows the pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg, walking her red bike loaded with bags across a dark road. The video stops at the moment of impact. The video also shows the vehicle operator, Rafaela Vasquez, sitting at the wheel constantly glancing down at a phone in her lap.

Uber resumed its self-driving car testing in Pittsburgh in December in 2018. It also put self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco, Toronto, Dallas and Washington, DC, but had safety drivers operate those vehicles, rather than being in full autonomous mode. 

Over the past two years, Uber has beefed up safety for its self-driving cars. The company now requires its drivers to have extensive training and work fewer hours; and all cars must have two operators. Uber said it’s also added vehicle and software improvements, such as better tracking of pedestrians and automated emergency braking.

Uber first launched its self-driving cars in San Francisco in 2016, but botched the rollout by not securing a proper permit from the state DMV. Within hours of the launch, the department told the company it was breaking the law and needed to halt the program. After a public tussle, Uber refused to back down and instead packed up its cars and moved to Arizona.

One of the key issues complicating Uber’s initial rollout in the city was concern for public safety. The day of Uber’s launch in San Francisco, one of the self-driving cars was filmed running a red light. Similar incidents were reported throughout the city in the following days.

California and Uber made nice a few months later with the company securing an operating permit. But then, after the fatal crash in Arizona, Uber pulled its cars from the state again. Last month, Uber received a new permit from the California DMV. 

As of Tuesday, the only cities where Uber is testing its vehicles in full autonomous mode are Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

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