Uber Wants Self-Driving Cars on Dallas Roads. Here’s Why

In November, Uber will map streets in the downtown area to decide whether to test self-driving cars in the city. The transportation company's presence in North Texas is expanding even as it faces significant roadblocks.

by Melissa Repko The Dallas Morning News / October 7, 2019
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone

(TNS) — Uber may be based in San Francisco, but lately it's made a lot of moves in Dallas.

It's opening a major corporate hub in Deep Ellum that it expects to grow to at least 3,000 employees. It plans to test its futuristic urban air taxi service in North Texas. And starting this November, it will map streets in downtown Dallas and decide whether to test self-driving cars in the city.

The transportation company's presence in North Texas is expanding even as it faces significant roadblocks. Its debut on the stock market disappointed investors. It's had two rounds of layoffs in recent months. And its stepping up self-driving tests again after a very public setback. One of Uber's self-driving cars killed a pedestrian last year in Arizona and brought testing to a months-long halt.

Uber's self-driving cars are back on the road in Pittsburgh, near the headquarters of its Advanced Technologies Group. It's pressing ahead with plans for a self-driving future by mapping other cities — including Dallas.

On Tuesday, the company will host a town hall in Dallas where the public can learn more and ask questions. Ahead of the event, The Dallas Morning News spoke to Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Self-driving technology is pricey to develop and comes with a lot of risks. Why is it so important to Uber and its future?

Self-driving is a really fantastic opportunity for Uber to have a product offering that's safer, better and less expensive. You can imagine a world where people would have mobility like they do with Uber today, but at a price point that matches their wallets better and also has a better level of safety. There are about 40,000 people a year in the United States who die in car accidents, and that number is going up. It's because of distracted drivers and devices. We can make a dent in that. And we can make an experience that's even better so people will like it even more.

Why did you pick Dallas as a place to map and collect data and potentially test self-driving cars?

Dallas has been a first-class partner to Uber. It's a place where we're going to be putting our new HQ2 and where we are going to land our [urban air taxi service] Uber Elevate. Dallas is really inviting from a regulatory perspective and with the support of the city.

Will you start in certain parts of downtown Dallas or cast a wide net?

We will do the wide net from satellite. From the wide net, we will down-select. That's done without going to the city streets. For example, we are only going to run 25 miles per hour. We will remove everything that's not 25 mph. We'll keep down-selecting and removing things, and then we'll have areas that match what our tech development road map is. We will only run in the daytime. We will not run in the rain and we will only go 25 mph.

What are the odds of self-driving cars actually hitting the road in Dallas?

They're high, based on what we've seen so far. What we've seen isn't just a study of geography. It's the commitment that Uber is making in the city and how officials in the city are responding to us. We're excited, and it's very likely that there are areas of the city where it makes sense for us to have this technology.

You've spoken at events about people who jump in front of self-driving cars or even made rude gestures at them. Some people are afraid of self-driving cars, too. What convinces you the public will ultimately accept them?

The process that we're doing with the town halls right now is about sharing and teaching and hearing people's concerns and giving people a voice. Being heard matters a lot.

Uber is not going to stand up a product that is a self-driving product. It is going to be integrated into Uber. And if you ask for a ride from one address to another and those two addresses fall within the route set that self-driving cars serve, you'll get a notice that says, 'Hey, you've been paired with a self-driving car. Would you like to try that or would you like to have a driver partner pick you up?' So you get to choose. And what happens is when you get a choice, you're more empowered and you are more curious and you have more of a tendency to lean in and be bold.

Uber had a crash in Arizona and some of Uber's own employees have been critical of its safety practices. Why should the public trust Uber as it puts self-driving cars on the road again?

This is going to be a "show, don't tell" kind of situation. The amount of things we've changed and how we've developed as a company as a result of the crash in Tempe is significant. We are very proud of our safety culture and how serious we are about it. Part of what we're doing is demonstrating that. We're telling people what's going on. We're telling people how we are going to do it. We are not rolling in at night with a thousand cars. We are coming in slow and soft and showing people how these things look in their neighborhoods, feel in their neighborhoods and giving them the chance to actually trust the presence of them. I really think the thing people need to do is see it, touch it, get used to it — or reject it. And we'll see how they respond.

If you go | Uber town hall

Uber officials are inviting members of the public to a town hall where they'll answer questions about the company's self-driving technology and plans for Dallas. The event is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the company's new office at 2550 Pacific Ave., Dallas.

Attendance is capped at 200 people and registration is required. Register to attend here.

©2019 The Dallas Morning NewsDistributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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