I was behind the wheel when a self-driving Uber failed — here’s what happens

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

Uber launched its second pilot program in San Francisco last week, but the day it launched, a car ran straight through a red light.

Uber has since said the incident was due to human error, but it’s not clear whether that means a person drove through the light or failed to stop the car from doing so while it was in autonomous mode. Either way, Uber knows its cars will fail from time-to-time, which is why a safety driver and engineer sit upfront while the cars autonomously drive people.

(Uber shut down the San Francisco pilot program on Wednesday after the California DMV revoked the cars’ registration.)

Uber let us get behind the wheel for the launch of its pilot program in Pittsburgh in September, and we got to see firsthand what it’s like when the car fails and needs a driver to take over.

Keep in mind that Uber used self-driving Volvo XC90s for the San Francisco pilot instead of the self-driving Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh. As a result, the interface we experienced is slightly different from the one in the Volvo cars.

But you can scroll down to get a basic sense of what it’s like when the robot cars need help:


First, a brief introduction to Uber’s self-driving car in Pittsburgh: a Ford Fusion retrofitted with autonomous tech. The car has a massive, spinning lidar on top and 20 cameras. That doesn’t even factor in the several radar and lidar modules on the side and GPS units helping the car drive safely.

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Uber

Lidar is an acronym for light-sensing radar, a remote-sensing technology that uses lasers to map out the world around the car so it can “see” obstacles.


That lidar on top is exceptionally powerful. Eric Meyhofer, the engineering lead for the self-driving-car project, says it’s capable of firing 1.4 million laser points per second to build a 3D view of the car’s surroundings. A camera under the giant lidar machinery transforms that black-and-white 3D view into color so it can sense things like traffic-light changes.

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Uber

But that doesn’t mean the car is ready to go out in the world all on its own. We’ve already heard that Uber’s self-driving cars struggle with bridges because there aren’t enough environmental cues for the car to figure out where it is.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

You can read a bit more about that problem here.


And Uber itself has said it chose Pittsburgh because it poses so many challenges for its self-driving cars. “We have a very old city, very complex road network, real traffic problems here, [and] extreme weather here,” said Raffi Krikorian, the director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center. “So, in a lot of ways, Pittsburgh is the double black diamond of driving.”

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

That’s why the lucky few who are able to hail a self-driving Uber vehicle will still see a driver behind the wheel and an engineer in the passenger seat. Uber is aware there are situations in which a human may need to take over, and it has prepped accordingly.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

Uber let me get behind the wheel, and the whole system was really easy to use. A button on the center console will kick the car into autonomous mode. Right next to it is a giant red “kill switch” that, when hit, lets you take control of the car again.

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Uber; Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

The self-driving Volvo XC90s have this same set-up.


The kill switch isn’t entirely necessary, however, and Uber drivers are told it’s better to take over by pressing the brake or accelerator or turning the wheel yourself. A tool bar behind the wheel will show whether the car is in manual mode, as shown by a blue circle, or if it is driving autonomously, as indicated by a green checkmark.

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Business Insider/Danielle Muoio

Being in the driver’s seat was fairly nerve-wracking at first. There’s something difficult about not being in control, and seeing a wheel move on its own is downright spooky when you’re not used to it.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

But the car did perform relatively well in Pittsburgh! It accelerated just the right amount up steep hills and always had a smooth brake when approaching stopped cars. It also arguably handled left turns better than I do.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

Still, it did have some problems. I was driving on a perfectly straight back road, pictured below, without any cars when I heard a ding indicating the car wasn’t driving itself anymore. The engineer in the passenger seat wasn’t sure why the car stopped driving.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

When the car goes back into manual mode, it doesn’t automatically stall but begins to slow down. That means you have to be aware the entire time you’re behind the wheel in case you’re sharing the road with other vehicles.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

When I was riding in the backseat, the car switched into manual mode on a busy bridge. Our driver had his hands on the wheel the entire time and took over so quickly you wouldn’t have known anything had happened had a noise not sounded. We were told the failure had nothing to do with being on a bridge but with how busy our surroundings were.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

There are also situations in which drivers are advised to take over, even if the car doesn’t switch to manual mode. When I was behind the wheel and approached a car pulled over with its hazard lights on, I was instructed to handle the maneuvering to be on the safe side.

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Business Insider/Corey Protin

Overall, it’s really easy to take back control when the car suddenly switches into manual mode. Considering how many times it happened on just my 5-mile ride, it’s obvious that Uber’s self-driving cars still have some kinks to work out.

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Business Insider/Danielle Muoio