Uber pulled its self-driving cars off of San Francisco’s streets three years ago after a crash killed a woman in Tempe, Ariz. (Courtesy Uber)

Uber’s self-driving vehicles returning to San Francisco

Uber’s self-driving cars are back.

Three years ago, an Uber self-driving test vehicle struck and killed a woman walking in Tempe, Ariz. After the incident, Uber pulled its vehicles off the streets in California.

And off the streets they remained, until now.

Two Volvo XC90 self-driving Uber’s will roam San Francisco’s roads starting Tuesday, the company announced.

Those vehicles will, at least initially, be in self-driving mode only in the Richmond District, on San Francisco’s less-crowded West Side.

Uber drivers will manually guide its self-driving vehicles all across The City and on San Francisco highways. Uber did not have a timeline for its expansion of self-driving vehicles beyond the Richmond District.

“We are excited to resume autonomous testing in Uber’s home city this week,” an Uber spokesperson wrote, in a statement. “Our testing area will be limited in scope to start, 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.”

Uber obtained permits to operate from the California Department of Motor Vehicles on February 5, and are currently listed on the CA DMV’s web listing of permit holders to test automated vehicles.

Last November the National Transportation Safety Board issued a scathing indictment of Uber following the crash in Tempe, citing Uber’s “inadequate safety culture.”

The Uber Advanced Technologies Group automated driving system detected the pedestrian 5.6 seconds before impact, but “never accurately identified the object crossing the road as a pedestrian,” according to an NTSB statement describing the investigation, and the vehicle operator was watching a cellphone video of “The Voice.”

“Had the vehicle operator been attentive, the operator would likely have had enough time to detect and react to the crossing pedestrian to avoid the crash or mitigate the impact,” the NTSB wrote.

Uber addressed those concerns when announcing its Advanced Technologies Group self-driving test vehicles would return to San Francisco streets.

Since the crash three years ago, Uber has revised its operator roles, raising the technical competency required for the position, and increased training to combat distracted driving and fatigue.

Uber also added a camera system that detects a distracted operator, sounds and audible alert in the vehicle, and sends a notification to a remote monitoring team.

The company also instituted new software improvements to improve its detection and tracking of pedestrians and cyclists, and to drive more defensively, the company said in a statement.

Initially, Uber rolled out its self-driving cars on San Francisco streets in 2016 without permits to test them. The ride-hail giant was threatened with legal action from the CA DMV and was harshly rebuked by the late Mayor Ed Lee.

One of those self-driving cars ran a red light in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which was captured on video first revealed by the San Francisco Examiner. A New York Times investigation spurred by that red-light running — and featuring that video — later found the vehicle technology erred, not a human driver.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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