Uber has terminated its self-driving car operators in Pittsburgh

Uber suspended driverless car tests in March 2018.
Uber suspended driverless car tests in March 2018.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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Uber has laid off its self-driving car operators in Pittsburgh as the company rethinks its autonomous vehicle strategy following a fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, earlier this year.

The company held a meeting earlier today (July 11) to inform about 100 autonomous vehicle operators—people who monitor its self-driving cars—that their jobs were being terminated, a source close to the situation told Quartz. Uber said it was eliminating the position of autonomous vehicle operator, and that operators were free to apply to other roles at the company, the source said.

Uber confirmed it laid off about 100 autonomous vehicle operators in Pittsburgh and eliminated the position. The company plans to replace these jobs with about 55 “mission specialists”—specialists who are trained in both on-road and more advanced test-track operations, and who are expected to provide more technical feedback to self-driving car developers. Uber said affected operators could apply for these positions.

“Our team remains committed to building safe self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the coming months,” an Uber spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Uber suspended driverless-car testing at all sites—Pittsburgh, Tempe, Toronto, and San Francisco—after one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe on March 18. Elaine Herzberg was walking her bike across a highway at night when she was hit by Uber’s vehicle, which was in autonomous mode at the time.

A Tempe police report released in June deemed the crash “entirely avoidable.” Tempe detectives believe that the safety driver involved in the incident, Rafaela Vasquez, was likely distracted watching NBC talent show The Voice on her phone at the time of the collision. In late May, Uber shut down its driverless cars tests in Arizona, laying off about 300 people it had employed as safety drivers and continued to pay since the fatal crash.

After it shuttered operations in Arizona, Uber said it hoped to resume self-driving car operations in Pittsburgh this summer. That statement drew a strong rebuke from Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, who claimed the company failed to inform him of its plans, forcing him to learn about it “through social media reports.” Uber contended that it had “reached out to relevant officials” at every step.

Uber’s autonomous vehicle operators originally worked in pairs, but around November 2017 the company switched to having a single operator per vehicle, the person familiar with the matter told Quartz. Uber justified the change as an intermediate step between going from two operators to none in a fully autonomous vehicle, this person said, but also admitted to it being a cost-cutting measure. Pittsburgh operators were hired as employees with benefits and paid $24 an hour, and Uber had continued to pay them since the Tempe incident.

Pittsburgh was the earliest site of Uber’s self-driving car ambitions. The company hired its first robotics talent from Carnegie Mellon University in early 2015 and started its Advanced Technologies Center there. In September 2016, Uber puts its first passengers into self-driving cars in downtown Pittsburgh.

Peduto initially welcomed Uber enthusiastically, eager to demonstrate his city was on the side of innovation. Arizona governor Doug Ducey also welcomed Uber ”with open arms and wide open roads” when the company arrived in December 2016, after failing to obtain a testing permit in California and having its autonomous vehicle registrations revoked. “California may not want you,” Ducey said at the time, “but we do.”

Pittsburgh’s Peduto changed his tune on Uber in early 2017, as public sentiment turned against the company and its controversial co-founder and then-CEO Travis Kalanick. Ducey turned against Uber after the Tempe crash, suspending its self-driving car testing privileges and describing the incident as “disturbing and alarming.”