Uber debuts self-driving vehicles in landmark Pittsburgh trial

Uber debuts self-driving vehicles in landmark Pittsburgh trial, by Heather Somerville.

The launch of Uber’s self-driving pilot program marks the public unveiling of the company’s secretive work in autonomous vehicles and the first time self-driving cars have been so freely available to the U.S. public.

More than two years ago Uber — like most in the car business — identified autonomous driving technology as the springboard for the next stage of growth.

The aggressive San Francisco-based startup has already shaken up the world’s taxi services, earning a valuation of $68 billion. It plans ultimately to replace many of its 1.5 million drivers with autonomous vehicles.

But it is not as if robots are taking over the Steel City. There will be only four self-driving vehicles available to passengers, to start, and two people will sit in the front to take over driving when the car cannot steer itself.

I was behind the wheel when a self-driving Uber failed — here’s what happens, by Danielle Muoio.

I was driving on a perfectly straight back road … without any cars when I heard a ding indicating the car wasn’t driving itself anymore. The engineer in the passenger seat wasn’t sure why the car stopped driving.

When the car goes back into manual mode, it doesn’t automatically stall, but begins to slow down. That means you have to be aware the entire time you’re behind the wheel in case you’re on a road where there are cars around.

When I was riding in the backseat, the car switched into manual mode on a busy bridge. Our driver had his hands on the wheel the entire time and took over so quickly you wouldn’t have known anything had happened had a noise not sounded. We were told the failure had nothing to do with being on a bridge, but with how busy our surroundings were.

There are also situations where drivers are advised to take over, even if the car doesn’t switch to manual mode.

Why Pittsburgh, and not California like Google and where Uber is headquartered?

Uber itself has said it chose Pittsburgh because it poses so many challenges for its self-driving cars. “We have a very old city, very complex road network, real traffic problems here, [and] extreme weather here,” said Raffi Krikorian, the director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center. “So, in a lot of ways, Pittsburgh is the double black diamond of driving.”