The Arrival of Self-Driving Ubers in Pittsburgh

Journalists who took early rides in the cars seemed impressed, but also irked at their overly cautious robotic chauffeurs.

A journalist gets in a self driving Uber for a ride during a media preview at Uber's Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh Monday, Sept. 12, 2016.
Gene J. Puskar / AP

NEWS BRIEF The first self-driving Ubers will begin picking up passengers in Pittsburgh Wednesday, available to select customers. Journalists, however, were able to test the technology ahead of the official debut, and for the most part reporters seemed dazzled by their robotic chauffeurs—even if the cars tended to drive like your vision-impaired grandmother.

Reporters were greeted by the fleet of Ford Fusions near downtown Pittsburgh, where the company has sunk millions into its Advanced Technologies Center. Pennsylvania, as my colleague Adrienne LaFrance writes, has made itself amenable to the company and to self-driving technology through deregulation, which was vital for carrying out this trial. Pittsburgh, too, promised to be a prime testing ground, because with its 446 bridges, its sloped hills, narrow downtown roads, the tunnels, and the native “Pittsburgh left,” the city is the gantlet of potential driving disasters.

During the tests with reporters, and as it tries out the cars with the public, Uber hired drivers, “safety engineers,” to sit in the cars behind the wheel in case someone needed to take over. A few dozen local, national, and tech outlets tried the cars out, and for the most part they seemed to enjoy the experience, if not for a few hiccups where the safety driver took control.

Cameras and lasers atop the Ford Fusions took 1.4 million measurements per second. Particularly futuristic looking was a spinning cylinder that stuck up from the roof like a periscope. NPR’s reporter noted how customers in self-driving cars will double-check their destination on an iPad in the backseat, which also asks if the passenger’s seat belt is fastened. Then with a click of a button on the screen, it’s off to the road. NPR said:

The ride feels pretty much like a ride in any other car, with an extremely cautious driver. We go maybe one or two miles an hour over the speed limit. Turns in particular feel painfully slow.

That was something most reporters mentioned. Driving the speed limit at 25 miles per hour on a deserted road, while technically the law, is perhaps a bit of a new experience for many drivers and passengers. The other commonly frustrating maneuver were turns at red lights. This is nascent technology, and while the company envisions a driverless future in 10 years, the cars can’t manage right turns on a red light. That might frustrate some passengers, or the drivers waiting behind them, as it did in the case of  The Wall Street Journal’s reporter, who noted Uber is considering making the cars a bit more assertive.

Uber generally has programmed its cars to drive within speed limits, but it is considering making the cars a bit more aggressive to blend with traffic flows where people routinely speed.

In some situations, the safety drivers had to take over when the car stopped for too long, or encountered a situation it couldn’t compute. For The New York Times reporter that moment came when a truck backed out—illegally, the reporter noted—into the street. The safety driver pressed the brake and took over the car. This could be done at anytime, the Times wrote, by pressing:

… a big red button in the center console — suspiciously similar to a seat ejector switch from a James Bond film — to disengage from self-driving mode. To turn the self-driving feature back on, he need only press a sleek steel button next to an embossed nameplate stamped on the console.

For the NPR reporter, the safety driver took control when a parked car blocked the lane. The safety driver passed the car and then resumed self-driving mode.

The Wall Street Journal reporter had it worst. The driverless car stalled out behind a truck, stopped to wait for gawking pedestrians in the middle of the street, and was jostled when a car merged too closely.

But, overall, everyone seemed to feel safe in the cars. Unlike their human counterparts, the self-driving cars obey speed limits, don’t tailgate, and stop at a reasonable distance behind other cars at lights. Pittsburgh’s streets were compared to a “double-black diamond” ski trail, and the aside from driving a bit overly cautious, the self-driving Ubers seemed to do a fine job of navigating the roads.

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, here’s a look at the Pittsburgh streets through the eyes of a self-driving car.