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Uber Hosts Town Hall on Self-Driving Cars

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Uber Hosts Town Hall on Self-Driving Cars

Starting in November, Uber says two of its autonomous SUV's will begin mapping downtown Dallas streets in the first step toward launching self-driving cars in North Texas. (Published Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019)

Starting in November, Uber says two of its autonomous SUV's will begin mapping downtown Dallas streets in the first step toward launching self-driving cars in North Texas.

At a town hall event at Uber's new corporate offices in Deep Ellum, Uber Advanced Technologies Group CEO Eric Meyhofer explained the mapping would take several months before the company commits to launching an autonomous service in Dallas.

"It's a big investment for us in time, man and money and we wouldn't make the investment if we didn't have confidence this is something we are going to do here. But, we verify it," Meyhofer told NBC 5.

Dallas would be the fourth city where the ride-sharing company would offer self-driving technology. Uber already has autonomous vehicles on the streets in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

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The company will start mapping Dallas with two, white Volvo SUV's – equipped with LIDAR, sensors and cameras. The vehicles will be in manual mode with drivers at the wheel.

At Tuesday's town hall, some asked if the technology would replace drivers and eliminate jobs. Meyhofer said the goal of the autonomous vehicle program would be to grow the company, not replace drivers.

Others asked about safety and how the company would handle wrecks with autonomous vehicles.

"Regardless of who's at fault, I want to know what the procedure is. If nobody is in the car, how do you get the insurance? How do you go through the procedure you normally go through?" said Dorothy Pearcy. "That's uncharted territory."

For the foreseeable future, Meyhofer said the vehicles would be equipped with safety drivers on board who are trained.

Uber has not yet decided when it would deploy autonomous vehicles without safety drivers. In cities where the service is offered, safety drivers remain on board as a precaution.

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Last March an Uber in autonomous mode, with a safety driver, hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

"That shook us to our core and we stopped all on road development for the better part of a year," said Meyhofer.

Since then, Uber says it enhanced training and screening of safety drivers. A second safety driver is in the passenger seat. Uber also says it upgraded its software to better detect passengers and added a camera system that sounds an audible alarm if the safety driver is detected to be distracted.

Meyhofer told the audience at the town hall that the vehicles would only operate in daylight hours and would not drive during inclement weather like heavy rain.

He pointed to the potential safety advancements in autonomous vehicles that always drive the speed limit and aren't susceptible to the same distractions as human drivers.

Meyhofer added the technology would eventually reduce the cost per ride and help serve communities that have been underserved by ride-share in the past.

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"Perhaps that is one of the benefits that could come from testing: the fact that the cars can go where some of our current Uber pick-ups don't," said Alvin Jordan who attended the town hall.

Jordan said he wanted to know more about the economic impacts of Uber launching an autonomous service in Dallas.

"I really wanted to know what else it would bring," said Jordan.

Uber says it picked Dallas because it is already working on plans for Uber Elevate, a flying taxi service in North Texas. Uber also currently partners with DART and offers services like Uber Eats.

The company has already announced a corporate expansion to Dallas that is expected to create up to 3,000 jobs over several years, 400 by the end of 2019.

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