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Ever wonder what it would be like to live in a laboratory? People in Pittsburgh could tell you it's not so bad. They've been sharing city streets with Uber's experimental self-driving cars since last September. Six months in, no one has been hurt and there have been no major accidents. Plus, the project is bringing in investments and boosting the city's reputation as a tech hub.
While there are only a handful of autonomous vehicles climbing Pittsburgh's hills, crossing its many bridges and boring through its tunnels, Uber says it's learning what a tough, old city like this one can teach the ride-hailing company.
Uber also tests cars in Arizona, but on terrain that's less challenging. Even so, last month a human-controlled car smashed into an Uber self-driving car and tipped it on its side. After a brief suspension, Uber's self-driving vehicles were back on the road.
"It's still very early in what we're doing, but it's going very well," says Uber's Emily Duff Bartel. One reason may be that each autonomous vehicle comes with two Uber employees in the front seat. Just in case. One is ready to grab the wheel and apply a foot to the brake pedal. The other, in the passenger seat, has a computer screen showing what the car's rooftop laser-bouncing radar is seeing.
"Their primary focus is 100 percent of their time to be monitoring the system," Bartel says. Last month, Recode reported that, on average, these Uber autonomous vehicles required a human operator to intervene in the driving every 0.8 mile.
When NPR took a short spin in one of the Uber vehicles, the car behaved like a very cautious driver, stopping for a full three seconds at stop signs and never going above the speed limit. The Uber humans had to take to get around a bulky, parked 18-wheeler and to get the car into and out of the Uber parking lot.
When this testing began, Mayor William Peduto showered praise on the company. Over the six months, he's become a bit more critical because he thinks Uber is not sharing what it's learning.
"If we were able to utilize what Uber has and enhance it, we could create not only a more efficient traffic system in the city of Pittsburgh, but a much, much safer system," Peduto says. He would like to have data on potholes, where pinch points are and what traffic patterns are.
Nonetheless, he's happy for the investment the company has made in the city. City Councilman Corey O'Connor is happy, too. Uber's self-driving test facility is in his district. Its facility is located in an old industrial site.
"That's important because now that site has become a worldwide site," O'Connor says.
Another happy Pittsburgh institution is Carnegie Mellon University. At first, when Uber scooped up dozens of faculty members to work on the self-driving car project, the school had to scramble. But the benefits soon outweighed the loss.
"That fact that Uber is out here investing megabucks makes the region very attractive," says Carnegie Mellon electrical and computer engineering professor Raj Rajkumar. "It retains our graduates — a brain drain from Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh."
Another positive report comes from bicyclists. Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, says members of his group feel a lot more comfortable around autonomous vehicles than human drivers.
"They can guarantee that the [autonomous vehicle] is not inebriated, that it is not programmed to drive aggressively," he says. The autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh are programmed to maintain a four-foot distance from bikes.
While Uber's vehicles are practicing good traffic etiquette, becoming self-reliant is a hard climb. Rajkumar, an early engineer on self-driving cars, says that a world where such cars are the norm is a long way off.
"All these predictions that people made, including myself, going back several years, it turns out we are not there yet," he says.
"It turns out that driving is a very complex activity. In fact, it may be the most complex activity that most adults on the planet engage in."
Even harder for autonomous cars to master are local quirks; things like "the Pittsburgh left." That's a custom unique to the city that allows the first driver trying to make a left turn to do so before oncoming cars pass through an intersection. It's one thing that Emily Duff Bartel says Uber's fleet of self-driving cars won't be programmed to practice. "We're following the rules on this one," she says.
That's because an autonomous vehicle is a rational machine, so you can't make it do human tricks. A real city like Pittsburgh is an irrational obstacle course, where the obstacles are sometimes at rest and sometimes in motion. We learn rules of the road that we then commonly violate. And we often use eye contact to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers.
For all the automotive industry's enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles, Uber's Pittsburgh experiment is still truly experimental.