Spotlight on Uber’s Self-Driving Cars in Pittsburgh

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In September of 2016, the City of Pittsburgh became the host for Uber’s latest endeavor: self-driving cars. At this time, Bill Peduto, the Mayor of Pittsburgh, demonstrated enthusiasm for the experiment by saying, “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.” (New York Times) It was seen as an opportunity to transform their urban transportation system as well as boost the city’s reputation as a tech economy.

Just nine months later, however, Mayor Peduto along with the residents of Pittsburgh have quite a different outlook on Uber’s presence in their city. Are the self-driving cars in Pittsburgh not performing adequately? What is the future of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more that surround the presence of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh.

Uber’s self-driving cars in Pittsburgh

The tension between Uber and the city of Pittsburgh is based on a clash of private-versus-public interests, rather than problems with self-driving cars themselves. In fact, during the time Uber’s self-driving cars navigated the narrow roads, steep hills, and hundreds of bridges of Pittsburgh there were no major accidents.

Of note, while these cars do drive autonomously, they still require two Uber drivers to be present in the vehicle. One is prepared to grab the wheel and apply a foot to the brake pedal if necessary. The person in the passenger seat monitors a computer screen that shows the view from the car’s rooftop LIDAR, a laser-bouncing radar. (NPR)

It turns out that having the Uber drivers present in the self-driving cars was a necessity. Earlier in 2017, Recode reported that Uber’s self-driving cars only drove an average of close to 0.8 miles before the safety driver had to take over for one reason or another.

While Uber’s self-driving cars are not fully autonomous yet, they are using information learned from these trials through the streets of Pittsburgh to make improvements. However, Mayor Peduto has said that he does not think that Uber is sharing what it’s learning, which is just one factor contributing to the controversy between Uber and the City of Pittsburgh.

In addition to the insufficient data from Uber, The New York Times reports that the company has not lived up to its end of the bargain with Pittsburgh based on the following perceived infringements:

  • Uber began charging for driverless rides that were initially pitched as free
  • The company withdrew support from Pittsburgh’s application for a $50 million federal grant to revamp transportation
  • Uber has not created the jobs it proposed in a struggling Pittsburgh neighborhood that houses its autonomous car testing track

Linda Bailey, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, states that Uber “is a business, and they want to make money. With Pittsburgh, we learned we need to present the city’s needs upfront.” (New York Times)

What is the future of autonomous vehicles?

Of course, Uber isn’t the only company pursuing the development of self-driving cars. Apple, Google, Lyft, Tesla, Ford, GM, Toyota, and Chevrolet are some of the big names pursuing this new technology, along with many other companies across the globe.

While major strides have been made in the development of self-driving cars, the predictions for vehicles that are fully autonomous is pretty far off. For example, Tesla estimates that its autonomous vehicles will reach the market around 2023, and Uber doesn’t expect its self-driving cars until at least 2030.

In regards to the future of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Mayor Peduto states that he is now talking to Ford about signing commitments on data sharing and workforce development. (The NY Times) Ford is investing $1 billion in a Pittsburgh-based driverless technology company, Argo AI.

Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon electrical and computer engineering professor, says that a world where such cars are the norm is a long way off. “It turns out that driving is a very complex activity. In fact, it may be the most complex activity that most adults on the planet engage in,” Rajkumar explains. (NPR) Plus, when you add in local driving quirks, such as The Pittsburgh Left, driving can become even more complicated. Overall, the technology and engineering that go into developing these vehicles is impressive, but seeing autonomous vehicles take over the road is not in the foreseeable future.

Have you seen Uber’s self-driving cars in Pittsburgh? What are your thoughts on the future of autonomous vehicles in the rideshare industry? Leave us a comment below!

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