Uber Technologies Inc. said on Saturday it is suspending testing of its autonomous vehicles after one of the autos was involved in an accident in Tempe, Ariz., a dramatic halt to one of the most high-profile self-driving programs.
The ride-hailing company is pulling vehicles from streets in Pittsburgh, Tempe and California while it investigates the incident in which a Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicle operated by Uber was upended.
Tempe Police Sgt. Josie Montenegro said the Uber vehicle wasn’t responsible for the accident and that a regular vehicle failed to yield. She said no serious injuries were reported.
The Uber vehicle was in self-driving mode with no customers on board when the incident occurred. “We are continuing to look into this incident,” an Uber spokeswoman said.
Like many technology companies, including rival Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, Uber is investing heavily in self-driving vehicles with the belief they will reduce fatalities and improve fuel and traffic efficiency by limiting human error.
But the technology is still many years from being ready. Uber, for instance, typically puts two employees in each vehicle, one in the driver seat who can take control when needed and another with a computer to monitor the auto’s efficacy. Customers could also hail the self-driving cars in the test program, accompanied by Uber employees.
Alphabet’s Waymo self-driving car unit has logged more than 2.5 million miles on U.S. roadways, more than any other company, though it hasn’t opened them up yet for regular customers.
Waymo cars, which mostly cruise streets in and around Alphabet’s hometown of Mountain View, Calif., have reported several minor accidents but most weren’t the fault of the self-driving vehicles. In February, a Waymo car was at fault when it hit a bus, but the vehicles were traveling slowly and no one was injured.
For Uber, the technology is considered essential for the $68 billion company to eventually reach consistent profitability as it will eliminate the expense of paying legions of drivers.
Uber began testing the autonomous vehicles in Tempe last month after California regulators revoked the cars’ registrations because the startup failed to get a permit to operate them. Uber has since paid $150 to obtain a permit for two vehicles in California. It has been testing in Pittsburgh since last September.
Uber’s autonomous vehicle program faces perhaps a bigger test than a traffic accident. Alphabet has sued the ride-hailing company, alleging Anthony Levandowski, a former executive at Alphabet’s Google, stole corporate secrets to found his self-driving big rig company Otto, which was acquired by Uber last year.
Alphabet is seeking an injunction to halt Uber’s use of the technology. Uber is expected to respond on the injunction in early April and respond to Alphabet’s lawsuit later in the month. Uber has said the claims are a “baseless attempt to slow down a competitor” and that it would defends itself in court.
The Tempe accident is the latest setback for Uber, which in recent weeks has faced accusations of permitting sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace, a string of executive departures and a rare apology from Chief Executive Travis Kalanick after an embarrassing video leaked of him aggressively confronting a driver.