Bloomberg reported Thursday that the ride-hailing behemoth Uber will roll out passenger-ready autonomous vehicles in the city of Pittsburgh later this month. Customers summoning regular Ubers from their phones will be randomly assigned to one of a fleet of tricked-out Volvo SUVs, capable of driving without human assistance.
This isn’t quite the official beginning of the robot-car Judgement Day: In compliance with Pennsylvania state law, there will still be back-up human drivers at the wheel. And according to Bloomberg, a “co-pilot” will also be sitting in the passenger’s seat, taking notes on a laptop. These rides will be free to passengers who choose to use them. But the announcement marks a major milestone that no other company has crossed: Uber can boast of having the first self-driving-car-based service brought to market, besting arch-rivals at Google, Apple, Tesla, and other auto manufacturers.
CEO Travis Kalanick has long yearned to automate the company’s fleet, and has competed hard for the best engineers, start-up acquisitions, mapping systems and lidar software to do it. His company opened its Advanced Technologies Center to research autonomous cars along the banks of the Allegheny River in February 2015, luring 40 employees away from Carnegie Mellon University’s esteemed robotics research lab. Just a year and a half later, Uber has beaten its competitors to the punch (even if its businesses practices have pissed off drivers in Pittsburgh, as in so many other cities).
Some observers express some skepticism about the announcement, particularly the fact that the self-driving Ubers will be carrying two human monitors (and not charging for their rides). ”It therefore appears that this is a more glorified version of what Google has been testing with its vehicles in multiple cities over many years,” says Raj Rajkumar, a scholar of computer engineering and transportation technology at CMU. Thursday’s announcement could be Uber signaling to other the other players in the self-driving race that it’s going to be a serious contender.
From Pittsburgh’s perspective, however, this should be a moment in the spotlight for a city that’s long been something of a quiet innovator in the robot realm. “We’ve been a center of research into this technology for some time,” says Timothy McNulty, communications manager for the city of Pittsburgh. “Whether it’s driverless cars or robotics or other technology, we’re pretty used to interfacing on that.”
Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute served as the launchpad for the self-driving field: It’s “widely considered the birthplace of autonomous vehicle technologies, dating all the way back to the early 1980s,” according to documents Pittsburgh submitted as part of its Smart Cities Challenge bid. That $50 million competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, asked mid-sized U.S. cities to create a plan harnessing emerging technologies to solve traffic and transit problems. All seven finalists positioned autonomous vehicles prominently in their applications, highlighting the potential of these cars to increase road safety and reduce congestion (Columbus, Ohio, ultimately won). But Pittsburgh got a chance to brag about its hometown pride, CMU, and the ground they’ve laid together to support autonomous and connected cars.
For example, the university currently has a project underway with the city to survey street conditions, roadway markings, and signage on a regular basis, using inexpensive cameras. “Good lane markings are useful for autonomous vehicle lane following,” says Chris Hendrickson, the director of the Traffic21 research institute at CMU.
Over the past five years, the university has also helped the city equip fifty streetlights with sensors, antennas, and wireless connections that adapt signal patterns based on traffic flow rather than fixed schedules. According to Pittsburgh’s Smart Cities application, traffic wait time has improved by 40 percent and emissions have been cut an estimated 20 percent in neighborhoods with the special technology. Some of these traffic lights are also able to communicate with connected vehicles about traffic speed and light status, using dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) radios. “Self-driving vehicles and the public will be significant beneficiaries over time," says Rajkumar.
According to McNulty, Uber’s autonomous cars won’t likely be able to interface with these streetlights (Uber did not respond to request for comment), though self-driving vehicles developed by CMU can. And it may only be a matter of time before more of those streetlights are deployed and become adapted to other kinds of vehicles. In Pittsburgh’s Smart Cities application, city officials laid out their vision for a more fully connected city:
Using fixed assets such as streetlights and traffic signals, storm-water pipes, electric lines, and even city staircases, Pittsburgh will create a number of “Smart Spines”, our major corridors which flow with as-yet untapped, but valuable data… The City of Pittsburgh’s existing network for [DSRC-equipped] traffic signals will be significantly expanded. Along our corridors, mobile assets - public buses, city fleet vehicles, bike share bicycles, and more – will be equipped with DSRC and become “connected vehicles” to provide a more robust picture of Pittsburgh’s transportation ecosystem.
The partnerships the city forged through the Smart Cities competition process—such as those with Allegheny County, PennDOT, the University of Pittsburgh, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments—remain in place, says McNulty, and with Uber’s autonomous cars taking to the streets, the pressure to smart-ify more of the city’s infrastructure may very well grow.
Carnegie Mellon’s pioneering work with connected and autonomous vehicles, and the city’s support of it, are big reasons why Uber came to Pittsburgh in the first place. And since then, local and state leaders have been friendly partners to aspiring self-driving carmakers: Just this past June, PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards announced that his department would be chairing a newly established Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force, which “will collaboratively develop guidance that PennDOT will use when drafting autonomous vehicle policy,” according to a statement. Officials from the Federal Highway Administration, AAA, CMU, and Uber Technologies all sit on the force. Other states with driverless technology happening in their backyards (ahem, California) haven’t been quite as amicable.
It may well be years, even decades, before cars are truly driverless; numerous safety, technical, and regulatory issues remain to be addressed. Still, testing these vehicles with passengers who really need to go somewhere “provides an opportunity for answering some of these questions in real-world environments,” says Susan Shaheen, a UC Berkeley transportation scholar. And perhaps most of all, Uber’s plans highlight Pittsburgh efforts to establish itself as the capital of a fast-growing international field.
“We have three rivers, 500 bridges, a mountain range, and a crazy street grid,” says McNulty. “If autonomous vehicles can work here, they can work anywhere.”