Uber is laying off its safety drivers in Pittsburgh and San Francisco—about 100 people in total. It’s the latest sign that Uber is scaling back its testing operations as it tries to move beyond the March crash that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.
Uber’s testing operations have been suspended nationwide since that fatality. It already laid off its safety drivers in the Phoenix metropolitan area—previously the company’s most significant testing location. And the company decided not to renew its permit to test self-driving cars in California.
But Uber says it’s still aiming to resume testing in the Pittsburgh area. While about 100 Uber safety drivers are officially being laid off, Uber expects many of them to apply for 55 newly created “mission specialist” jobs doing similar work. Previously, Uber had separate teams testing on public roads and on private test tracks. Now, Uber wants a single team of drivers to perform testing in both cases and to provide them with additional training to better aid Uber engineers in improving the company’s self-driving software.
Uber believes that rehiring existing safety drivers who already have experience with Uber’s technology will allow the company to stick to its previously announced goal of resuming testing in Pittsburgh by the end of the summer.
Quality over quantity
The larger picture here is that Uber is scaling back its testing operations in an effort to get quality over quantity. Before the crash, Uber was rushing to get the technology ready for a product launch, racking up miles to compete with rivals like Alphabet’s Waymo. Now, Uber is more focused on getting the technical foundations right—even if that means it takes longer to get a product to market.
The decision to shut down testing in Phoenix is one sign of that shift. Uber has substantial engineering teams in both San Francisco and Pittsburgh, but its office in the Phoenix area was almost entirely focused on the operational aspects of driverless car testing. Uber believes that it can get more value out of testing that occurs in close collaboration with its engineering teams, and that requires testing to occur in Pittsburgh or San Francisco.
And media reports suggest that testing could be scaled back a lot. Citylab’s Laura Bliss says two sources inside Uber told her that “the company intends to test on public streets in manual mode only, and only a predetermined route between its headquarters and a suburban test track.” (An Uber spokesperson told Bliss that the exact testing routes haven’t been determined yet.)
Such a limited testing regime could help to satisfy government officials who are skittish about Uber resuming testing on public roads. The mayor of Pittsburgh reacted negatively when Uber first announced plans to resume testing there, but an Uber spokesman says that the company has recently had positive conversations with both state and city regulators.