The Toronto Star
Uber put a pair of self-driving cars on Toronto streets Tuesday after winning approval from the province for on-road testing of its autonomous vehicle technology.
Two autonomous vehicles (AVs) operating in manual mode will be driving around the University of Toronto campus and surrounding areas starting Tuesday and continuing for the rest of the week. “Manual mode” means that although the cars have self-driving capability, they will be operated by human drivers.
The cars aren’t available for rides: they will be conducting mapping tasks. Uber says it hopes to test the cars in autonomous mode by the end of 2017.
“This data will support our engineering efforts as we prepare for official testing later this year,” says Susie Heath, a spokesperson for Uber Canada.
Uber announced in May that it would open a research group devoted to driverless car technology in Toronto, creating a third hub and its first outside the U.S. for the company’s AV ambitions.
Last year, Ontario became the first province in Canada to allow on-road testing of AVs. The Ministry of Transportation’s pilot program permits approved companies and research groups to test their vehicles providing that applicants follow certain criteria, including keeping a human in the driver’s seat to monitor vehicle operations at all times.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation says that seven groups have been approved for on-road testing under the pilot program: Uber, the University of Waterloo, the Erwin Hymer Group, QNX, Continental, X-matik Inc., and Magna. Uber’s two AVs join a fleet of conventional sensor-equipped cars that began collecting mapping data from Toronto’s streets last September.
Uber’s self-driving car tests elsewhere have been accompanied by regulatory disputes. In California, Uber initially refused to apply for permits for the self-driving cars it was operating in San Francisco, arguing that the vehicles don’t meet the state’s definition of autonomous. The New York Times also reported that Uber’s AVs in San Francisco ran several red lights.
The state revoked the vehicles’ registrations, and Uber responded by moving its testing to Arizona, where regulations are more permissive. (An Uber AV in Arizona was involved in a crash, but police said the other driver was at fault.) Uber later obtained the California permits and put its self-driving cars back on the streets.
The cars in San Francisco are also involved in testing and development, not picking up passengers. In Pittsburgh, where Uber’s biggest AV research hub is located, self-driving cars have been picking up passengers — with a safety driver in the front seat — since September 2016.
The company has had a tumultuous year. A former engineer alleged that she had been sexually harassed at work, prompting an investigation into Uber’s workplace culture. Waymo, Google’s self-driving unit, is suing Uber, claiming that a former engineer stole thousands of files on a critical piece of hardware before founding a company that was acquired by Uber (Uber later fired him). Dogged by controversies and grappling with his mother’s death in a boating accident, CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down in June and has not yet been replaced.
Ontario has said it wants to position itself at the forefront of the emerging autonomous vehicle market, which some — including Uber — believe will be worth billions of dollars. The province also cites the potential for more environmentally-friendly and safer roads, since automated drivers are not prone to distraction or drinking and driving, like humans are.