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Driverless Ubers to start hauling passengers in Pittsburgh soon | TribLIVE.com
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Driverless Ubers to start hauling passengers in Pittsburgh soon

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, August 18, 2016 9:00 a.m
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Uber
An Uber-owned Ford Fusion drives itself along North Shore Drive in Pittsburgh in May 2016.
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Uber employees in August 2016 test a self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car in Pittsburgh.
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Uber
An Uber-owned Ford Fusion drives itself along North Shore Drive in Pittsburgh in May 2016.

The driver of your next Uber in Pittsburgh could be a robot.

Uber announced plans Thursday to use a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh’s Downtown, marking the first time the public will have access to the type of semi-autonomous cars the ride-sharing service has been testing here for months.

The self-driving cars will have a person in the driver’s seat to take control when needed. The rides will be free to users.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanik has put self-driving cars at the forefront of his 7-year-old company. Auto and tech giants Ford, General Motors, Audi, Google and Apple are racing to make autonomous vehicles a reality.

“We’re catching up fast, but we need to get to No. 1 quick,” Kalanik said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We’ve got to be laser-focused on getting this to market, because it’s not a side project for us. This is everything. This is all the marbles for Uber.”

Uber opened its Advanced Technology Center in the Strip District 18 months ago to work on self-driving cars. The company lured away 40 of Carnegie Mellon University’s top researchers, many with deep backgrounds in robotics.

John Bares, the center’s director, led CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for more than a decade and started Carnegie Robotics before joining Uber. The company intends to develop a test track at Hazelwood’s 178-acre Almono site and renovate a portion of the historic railroad roundhouse on the property.

“The city of Pittsburgh has been fully supportive of Uber’s efforts to expand its program and advance innovation,” said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. “Peduto, a regular user of Uber, welcomes these advancements and looks forward to further collaboration with the company.”

State law requires cars to have a licensed driver behind the wheel. Legislation to regulate autonomous vehicles is under consideration.

Uber has no plans to offer self-driving cars in other cities. The company did not provide details about the number of cars, who will be behind the wheel, what training they will receive and when and where the self-driving service will operate.

Michael Hughes, 50, of Penn Hills is one of Uber’s about 4,000 drivers in the Pittsburgh area. Hughes said he isn’t worried about Uber’s fleet of self-driving cars taking his job in the short term. Pittsburgh is a complicated city to navigate, said Hughes, who had two GPS systems running Thursday in his Toyota Prius on a trip to the North Side.

“I don’t think they’re where they need to be,” Hughes said of Uber’s self-driving technology. “I’m sure it will happen one day, but I’m not sure it’s ready to happen.”

Other Uber drivers who spoke to the Tribune-Review on Thursday said they weren’t worried about their jobs but wondered about the safety of the self-driving cars.

The crash of a Tesla Model S that killed Western Pennsylvania native Joshua Brown in May on a Florida highway was mentioned in every discussion. Brown’s Tesla was operating in Autopilot mode when the car crashed into the side of a tractor-trailer that had turned in front of it. Neither Brown nor the car’s radar and cameras spotted the white-sided tractor-trailer in strong sun, and the vehicle never braked.

John Dolan, a principal systems scientist at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said it is tough to know how far along Uber is with its technology because it has been cautious about releasing information.

In May, a Tribune-Review reporter was the first member of the media and one of the first non-Uber employees to ride in a self-driving Ford Fusion. An Uber employee sat behind the wheel, and another sat in the passenger seat monitoring the car’s cameras and sensors. The car drove itself across the 31st Street Bridge and along portions of River Avenue. It switched out of self-driving mode several times — doing so with a loud beep — whenever the car encountered a situation it could not handle, including once when a family of geese crossed the road.

Dolan said it would surprise him if Uber had made great strides since then.

“These things take a lot of time,” Dolan said. “It takes a tremendous amount of testing.”

Dolan works on CMU’s self-driving car. The 2011 Cadillac SRX drove politicians and transportation officials from Cranberry to Pittsburgh International Airport in 2013 and has done limited public urban testing. Dolan said he wouldn’t feel comfortable opening CMU’s car to the public.

Uber also announced a $300 million alliance with Volvo to supply vehicles and technology, and the acquisition of Otto, an autonomous big-rig startup in San Francisco. Volvo will provide SUVs to Uber for autonomous vehicle research. Eventually, the Volvo SUVs will be part of the self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh. Volvo will develop base vehicles for research, and both companies will design autonomous vehicles on their own.

With Otto, Uber gets a fast infusion of self-driving expertise, including Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, one of the founding fathers of autonomous technology and formerly of Google until he and two other former employees there left to found their venture.

Though the Google car project just lost its director, Chris Urmson, it has a big head start on Uber and others. Its leaders have suggested they could launch public pilot tests of cars with no steering wheels or pedals in the next year or two.

Uber’s announcements might push it ahead of its prime competitor, Lyft, which earlier this year received a $500 million investment from General Motors.

Uber’s move to carry people with autonomous vehicles is not surprising, given the company’s history of pushing into gray areas where there is little or no regulation, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who studies self-driving technology.

“Part of this is marketing in the sense that they’re going to be doing continued research and development of these systems, but they’re going to carry people in the process,” he said.

Timothy Carone, a University of Notre Dame professor and author of “Future Automation: Changes to Lives and to Businesses,” said Uber is trying to get a first mover advantage by putting its cars on the road before competitors. But unlike Tesla Motors, which put semi-autonomous technology in the hands of individual customers, Uber is mitigating the risk by putting its own drivers in the front seat.

“This is a way to get autonomous cars out there and accepted and increase the adoption rate,” Carone said. “It will take a decade of testing before an 18-year-old can get in the car and tell it where to go.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Aaron at 412-320-7986, aaupperlee@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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