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Uber riders in Pittsburgh get a taste of driverless future

Published 15/09/2016

A self-driving Uber car drives down River Road on Pittsburgh's Northside (AP)
A self-driving Uber car drives down River Road on Pittsburgh's Northside (AP)

Uber has become the first company to make self-driving cars available to the general public in the US through a test programme in Pittsburgh.

The ride-hailing service selected a group of customers to take free trips in autonomous Ford Fusions, with human drivers as backups.

The volunteers included T aylor Pollier, 27, who said the Fusion "felt sharp" and the 15-minute ride to his bartending job went smoothly and felt "like taking an Uber any other day".

The cars must show they are able to handle all the challenges Pittsburgh offers, including snowstorms, rolling hills and a tangled network of ageing roads and bridges,

But if they can, and other riders have a similar reaction, then the self-driving car will be one step closer to going from science fiction to a realistic option for travellers.

"That pilot really pushes the ball forward for us," said Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber Advanced Technologies Centre in Pittsburgh, the company's main facility for testing self-driving vehicles.

"We think it can help with congestion. We think it can make transportation cheaper and more accessible for the vast majority of people."

The race between Silicon Valley upstarts and traditional carmakers to perfect a fully driverless car has intensified.

Companies such as Audi, Nissan and Google have invested hundreds of millions of pounds and logged millions of miles test-driving autonomous vehicles, usually in more ideal locations such as California.

Ford recently announced plans for a fully driverless car for use in ride-hailing and car-sharing programmes by 2021.

Approaches to the technology differ, with Google, a unit of Alphabet, and Ford saying the only safe option for riders is a fully driverless car - no steering wheel, no pedals and no human operator.

Others, like Mercedes-Benz, are adding autonomous features in phases, while relying on the driver to take over in certain circumstances.

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.

Some are apprehensive about involving humans as passengers while removing them as drivers before the technology has been thoroughly tested.

NuTonomy, a spin-off 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 a district in Singapore.

The company said on Tuesday that its six taxis - with backup drivers - have not had any accidents since the service launched.

The Uber vehicles are equipped with seven traffic-light 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.

During the test programme, two engineers are seated in front - a backup driver and another monitoring the car's 3D map and scribbling notes on how to improve the vehicle's software.

Uber executives are watching to see how the cars handle Pittsburgh's notoriously tricky driving conditions to determine when fully driverless vehicles will be ready to hit the roads.

"We actually think of Pittsburgh as the double black diamond of driving," Mr Krikorian said. "If we can really tackle Pittsburgh, that we have a better chance of tackling most other cities around the world."

AP

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