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