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Uber Offers Option of Autonomous Cars in Pittsburgh

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Self-Driving Uber

Self-Driving Uber. Image courtesy, Uber

People using the ride-hailing service Uber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, now have the option of riding in a self-driving Ford Fusion, the Associated Press reports. An Uber engineer sat in the driver’s seat of each of the self-driving cars during the roll-out Wednesday, just in case something should require a human to take control.

Xavier Harding writes for Popular Science that this self-driving Uber test program is taking place only in Pittsburgh for now. Uber has not revealed how many autonomous cars are in its test fleet, when it might be expanding the program to other cities, or when its driverless cars will be able to pick up passengers without having a human on standby behind the wheel.

Another unanswered question is whether customers are ready to ride in a car driving itself without a human ready to take over. Claudia Tyler, a health executive, told AP writer Dake Kang that the idea of being in the car without a driver scared her.

Experiencing a Self-Driving Car

Kang reported on an Uber ride in a self-driving car in Pittsburgh on Monday. The ride went smoothly through downtown Pittsburgh and over some bridges went smoothly, he wrote, with the car waiting for oncoming traffic before making a turn, and at one point stopping for a vehicle that was backing into a parking space. Parking was a task the human driver had to perform, however.

This test program is the first time any United States company has made self-driving cars available to the public. However, many experts believe it will be years before fleets of autonomous vehicles are driving people around without humans behind the wheel. Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon said that safety requires that the technology be “ultra-reliable” before cars can be fully autonomous.

Although the Uber test program is the first in the U.S., three weeks ago, NuTonomy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, launched a self-driving taxi service in Singapore. Its six-taxi fleet has not had any car accidents, the company reported.

Why Pittsburgh?

Uber chose Pittsburgh for the roll-out of its test program for several reasons. For one thing, that city is a research hub for self-driving cars. For another, Pittsburgh is known for difficult driving conditions — from snowstorms, to rolling hills, to a web of old roads and bridges. Raffi Krikorian, director of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, said the company sees that city as “the double black diamond of driving.” If Uber’s self-driving cars can do well there, they have a good chance of doing well elsewhere, he said.

Another benefit of testing in Pittsburgh is that Pennsylvania’s laws related to self-driving vehicles are not as strict as those in California and some other states where testing of the vehicles has been taking place. For example, Kurt J. Myers, Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said Pennsylvania does not require a human driver to be touching the steering wheel. Pennsylvania does require that a licensed driver be seated behind the wheel, however.


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