Uber said Wednesday that it is shutting down its self-driving vehicle operations in Arizona and laying off nearly 300 employees there.
The move comes two months after one of its cars hit and killed a pedestrian, and nearly a year and half after Gov. Doug Ducey, R, taunted officials in California for putting “the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation.”
Most of those being laid off are safety drivers, among them Rafaela Vasquez, who was behind the wheel in March when the autonomous 2017 Volvo struck Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she pushed a bicycle across a Tempe thoroughfare.
A video released by Tempe police showed Vasquez looking down repeatedly before the Uber hit Herzberg. Both the car’s systems and Vasquez failed to stop the vehicle in time, and the precise reasons are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Human chaperones are supposed to take control when the cars’ sensors and algorithms fall short or other circumstances demand it.
Uber halted its driverless testing, in Arizona and elsewhere, after the collision and Ducey later suspended the company’s driverless operations in the state, saying safety was his top priority.
Ducey spokeswoman Elizabeth Berry declined to provide details on Uber’s departure or say whether the governor’s laissez-faire approach to regulation of the driverless industry had been a mistake. “The governor’s focus has always been on what’s best for Arizonans and for public safety, not for any one company,” Berry said in a statement, adding that the suspension of Uber’s driverless testing “remains in place pending the outcome of federal investigations.”
In a statement, Uber said it is “committed to self-driving technology” and is seeking to return its driverless fleet to the road “in the near future.”
“In the meantime, we remain focused on our top-to-bottom safety review, having brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture,” the company said.
Uber is working with local and state officials in Pennsylvania in the hope of re-starting on-road testing in Pittsburgh this summer.
The company will concentrate its real-world testing in places where Uber has engineers on hand to make improvements, rather than working from afar, as was the case in Arizona. The employees in Arizona were mostly backup drivers, with some schedulers and other operations personnel, but not engineers. Uber’s main driverless research group is based in Pittsburgh.
The company also is talking with state officials in California, as well as the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento, about future driverless testing.
Uber will offer job coaching and other services in the coming weeks for the Arizona workers being laid off. Its ride-sharing and food delivery businesses will continue in the state.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Michael Laris