Uber’s self-driv­ing cars hit streets in Pa.

Test pro­gram gives rid­ers in Pitts­burgh a peek into fu­ture

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Dake Kang

PITTS­BURGH — Uber rid­ers in Pitts­burgh can get a glimpse of the fu­ture by sum­mon­ing a car ca­pa­ble of han­dling most of the tasks of driv­ing on its own.

On Wed­nes­day, a fleet of self-driv­ing Ford Fu­sions be­gan pick­ing up Uber rid­ers who opted to par­tic­i­pate in a test pro­gram. While the ve­hi­cles are loaded with fea­tures that al­low them to nav­i­gate on their own, an Uber en­gi­neer sits in the driver’s seat and can seize con­trol if things go awry.

Uber’s test pro­gram is the lat­est move in an in­creas­ingly heated race be­tween tech com­pa­nies in Sil­i­con Val­ley and tra­di­tional au­tomak­ers to per­fect driver­less cars for reg­u­lar peo­ple.

Com­peti­tors such as Nis­san and Google have in- A fleet of self-driv­ing Ford Fu­sions be­gan pick­ing up rid­ers Wed­nes­day in Pitts­burgh. vested hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars and logged mil­lions of miles test-driv­ing au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, but Uber is the first com­pany in the U.S. to make self-driv­ing cars avail­able to the pub­lic.

“That pi­lot re­ally pushes the ball for­ward for us,” said Raffi Kriko­rian, Di­rec­tor of Uber Ad­vanced Tech­nolo­gies Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh, the com­pany’s main fa­cil­ity for test­ing self-driv­ing vehi- cles. “We think it can help with con­ges­tion, we think it can make trans­porta­tion cheaper and more ac­ces­si­ble for the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple.”

Re­mov­ing the cost of the driver is one way to make rides more af­ford­able. But that prospect didn’t sit well with some Uber cus­tomers.

“It scares me not to have a driver there with an Uber,” said Clau­dia Tyler, a health ex­ec­u­tive stand­ing near the en­trance of an of­fice in down­town Pitts­burgh.

A reporter tried out the ser­vice Mon­day. The ride through down­town Pitts­burgh went smoothly, 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, how­ever, was a task the hu­man driver had to per­form.

Ap­proaches to driver­less tech­nol­ogy dif­fer.

Google, a unit of Al­pha­bet, and Ford Mo­tor Co. want to per­fect the fully driver­less car — no steer­ing wheel, no ped­als — be­fore let­ting the pub­lic climb in for a ride. Oth­ers are adding au­ton­o­mous fea­tures in phases.

Many ex­perts pre­dict that it will be years, if not decades, be­fore the pub­lic is be­ing driven around in fleets of fully driver­less ve­hi­cles un­der any con­di­tion.

“This tech­nol­ogy needs to be ul­tra-re­li­able be­fore we can take the hu­man out of the driv­ing equa­tion,” said Carnegie Mel­lon en­gi­neer­ing Pro­fes­sor Raj Ra­jku­mar.

NuTon­omy, a spinoff from the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, got the jump on Uber glob­ally three weeks ago when it be­gan pick­ing up pas­sen­gers in self-driv­ing taxis in Sin­ga­pore.

The com­pany said Tues­day that its six taxis — with backup driv­ers — haven’t had any ac­ci­dents since the ser­vice launched.

The Uber ve­hi­cles are equipped with seven traf­fi­clight de­tect­ing cam­eras, a radar sys­tem that de­tects dif­fer­ent weather con­di­tions and 20 spin­ning lasers that gen­er­ate a con­tin­u­ous, 360-de­gree 3-D map of the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

GENE J. PUSKAR/AP

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