A spin in Uber’s self-driv­ing car: Thrills, chills

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Nathan Bomey @NathanBome­y USA TO­DAY Bomey is a USA TO­DAY Money sec­tion re­porter.

Call it a leap of PITTS­BURGH faith. In al­go­rithms. And radar. And sen­sors.

Get­ting be­hind the wheel of a self-driv­ing car for the first time falls some­where on the screech­ing spec­trum be­tween fright­en­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

When Uber let me pi­lot a Ford Fu­sion sedan retro­fit­ted with the ride-hail­ing firm’s au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy through the streets of Pitts­burgh on Tues­day, the fu­ture felt reach­able.

Uber em­ploy­ees trained to han­dle the self-driv­ing car will be­gin pick­ing up pas­sen­gers who opt in to the pi­lot pro­gram start­ing Wed­nes­day, con­duct­ing dozens of trips a day. (Self-driv­ing cars will be as­signed ran­domly when users re­quest an UberX ride and will be free for a while.)

Engi­neers will col­lect data and con­tinue con­duct­ing their own tests, which have been un­der­way in Pitts­burgh for months, though Uber won’t dis­close how many au­ton­o­mous miles have been trav­eled.

It marks a con­crete step on the long road to com­pletely driver­less cars, which the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion be­lieves could one day elim­i­nate traf­fic deaths al­to­gether.

“This is early days for us in a lot of ways,” said Raffi Kriko­rian, leader of Uber’s Ad­vanced Tech­nolo­gies Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh, where the com­pany re­cruited nu­mer­ous spe­cial­ists away from Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity to ac­cel­er­ate its self-driv­ing car push. “We’re learn­ing every sin­gle day as we get on the road and are driv­ing more and more.”

In my 15-minute test drive with Uber engi­neers rid­ing in the car as mon­i­tors, I zipped through the Strip Dis­trict of Pitts­burgh. Well, “zipped” isn’t the right term. More like, pro­ceeded ex­tremely cau­tiously.

That’s be­cause, like Google’s driver­less car, the Uber-retro­fit­ted Fu­sion fol­lows all traf­fic rules, nav­i­gat­ing the road­way like a teen on a driver’s test. That means never go­ing a smidge over the speed limit or driv­ing, shall we say, ag­gres­sively.

Our new com­puter over­lords, it turns out, ac­tu­ally obey the law. Who knew. But soft­ware gu­rus are fu­ri­ously try­ing to teach cars to drive more like hu­mans, who un­der­stand that some­times you need to cross the yel­low line for safety’s sake.

What’s im­pres­sive about Uber is that it’s ready to ac­cept pas­sen­gers in a real-world ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, al­beit one that’s spe­cially mapped to en­sure the car knows its sur­round­ings.

Us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of laser, radar, cam­eras and map­ping, Uber engi­neers retro­fit­ted about two dozen Fu­sion sedans they bought off deal­er­ship lots.

Dur­ing my ride, the Uber car han­dled sev­eral com­plex sce­nar­ios deftly. It nav­i­gated safely be­hind bi­cy­clists and made turns against traf­fic on heav­ily ur­ban­ized roads, al­ways faith­fully hit­ting the turn sig­nal with plenty of time to spare.

Other sce­nar­ios il­lus­trated the car’s cau­tious ways. On mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions, this time with an Uber en­gi­neer nav­i­gat­ing, mo­torists ahead of our ve­hi­cle ma­neu­vered to­ward the curb to par­al­lel-park. The Uber car wanted to come to a com­plete stop in the road­way, in­stead of chang­ing lanes and mak­ing its way around the park­ing ve­hi­cle.

But since Uber car op­er­a­tors are trained to seize the wheel, ac­cel­er­ate or brake at any time to over­ride the self-driv­ing sys­tem and guide the ve­hi­cle as in­tended, my nav­i­ga­tor did so and we bolted past the parker be­fore the en­gi­neer re­ac­ti­vated the self- driv­ing sys­tem with a tap of a but­ton in front of the gear shifter. And that’s where Uber still has a lot of work to do.

“Your self-driv­ing Uber has ar­rived,” blares Uber’s mar­ket­ing slo­gan aimed at pro­mot­ing the Pitts­burgh pi­lot of­fer­ing. Not quite. Take this, as an ex­am­ple. As I was in the driver’s seat, I was in­structed to keep my hands lightly on the wheel but al­low the car to steer it­self — the same pro­ce­dure Uber engi­neers fol­low in road tests.

As the Fu­sion ap­proached an in­ter­sec­tion, in­tend­ing to turn right, it tem­po­rar­ily lost sight of the traf­fic light, ap­par­ently ob­scured by the taller truck in front of us. At that point, the self-driv­ing sys­tem turned off in- stantly, sound­ing a lit­tle beep to no­tify me that I needed to take con­trol of the wheel.

It took me at least a se­cond to rec­og­nize what was hap­pen­ing be­fore I took con­trol of the wheel and slowly ex­e­cuted the right-hand turn. We were never in real dan­ger, but for a mo­ment we were drift­ing in the mid­dle of the in­ter­sec­tion. Not good.

That’s why Uber is cur­rently re­strict­ing driver­ship of the ve­hi­cle to its own trained em­ploy­ees, who would un­der­stand how to re­spond in that sce­nario.

And let’s be clear: Uber’s engi­neers are rapidly mak­ing ad­vance­ments, tweak­ing al­go­rithms, adopt­ing the lat­est lightmap­ping tech­nolo­gies and ne­go­ti­at­ing po­ten­tial part­ner­ships with au­tomak­ers.

For starters, the Fu­sion is tem­po­rary. Uber on Tues­day showed jour­nal­ists a sta­tion­ary ver­sion of its next-gen­er­a­tion au­ton­o­mous car, the Volvo XC90, which has been de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with Volvo and is ex­pected to start fer­ry­ing Pitts­burgh pas­sen­gers in early 2017.

“We like to think about that car as the desk­top com­puter,” said Eric Mey­hofer, who over­sees self-driv­ing hard­ware for Uber, point­ing to the Fu­sion in a brief­ing at the com­pany’s new tech fa­cil­ity in Pitts­burgh.

He turned his gaze to the Volvo. “This one here (is the) lap­top,” he said.

“The next time you’re here, we’ll show you the smart­phone.”


Uber is cur­rently re­strict­ing driver­ship of its Ford Fu­sion self-driv­ing car to its own trained em­ploy­ees.

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