Uber’s self-driving cars hit streets in Pa.
Test program gives riders in Pittsburgh a peek into future
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.