Uber Maintains Low Profile at its Pittsburgh Research Center

Although the Research and Development Center may not be as transparent about its operations as others in the autonomous vehicle industry, director John Bares is pleased with the progress being made.

by Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / April 15, 2016

(TNS) -- When John Bares, director of Uber Technologies’ research center in Pittsburgh, was asked to update business leaders on the ride-share company’s progress and vision for the future in the Steel City, he said he had an easy answer.

“I’m happy to give a talk — I can’t say anything; company policy,” Mr. Bares quipped as he took the podium Thursday morning at a breakfast briefing sponsored by Huntington Bank. “And I can’t answer any questions.”

Though it was an icebreaker that earned a hearty chuckle from dozens of tech industry representatives, Mr. Bares was hitting a key point: For all its disruption, the $50 billion company has kept a relatively low profile at the Uber Advanced Technology Center along the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville.

Uber, since moving into Pittsburgh in early 2014, has altered the fundamentals of transportation — enlisting roughly 4,000 drivers to provide on-demand lifts to about 145,000 riders in the area, Mr. Bares said. Along the way, it has clashed with state regulators, pushed Yellow Cab of Pittsburgh to launch a competing app-based service called zTrip and generated controversy by lifting 40 Carnegie Mellon University robotics researchers — including Mr. Bares — for its endeavor into self-driving cars.

As one audience member noted during a question-and-answer session, there is a perception that Uber does not share its progress on driverless vehicles as much as other companies. To an extent, Mr. Bares agreed.

“Google’s out there, Tesla’s out there ... and they’ve done a phenomenal job in outreach and showing multiple instances where a self-driving car is better than what a human would have done,” he acknowledged. “But we’re one year and two months into our journey. The time will come when we’re much more open about our results.”

Uber announced its partnership with CMU to develop self-driving cars in February 2015, and the company this spring is planning test tracks at a site in Hazelwood. Mr. Bares credited Mayor Bill Peduto for being a welcoming figure — Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s “favorite mayor,” he said — as other cities have been more hostile to Uber’s operations.

He also said Uber has hired “a lot” of people in Pittsburgh and moved others here from cities on the West Coast, declining to give a specific number.

“We’re constantly relocating people to Pittsburgh,” he said. “Uber’s here to stay. This is the center of what we do. We will be one of the most formidable teams on the planet” developing self-driving vehicle technology.

Planning new Uber services

Pittsburghers can expect new Uber services in the near future, though the company said there are no immediate plans to launch. The services include UberRUSH, a delivery service that connects a range of businesses — Mr. Bares suggested local dry cleaners, bakeries, burrito shops — to Uber’s fleet to send food and products to customers.

Another is UberCOMMUTE, a feature that helps commuting Uber drivers find riders on their way to work. Together with UberPOOL — a similar service that connects several riders who have requested a similar route to one driver — the features advance the company’s societal goal of reducing traffic accidents and congestion by taking cars off the road, Mr. Bares said.

UberRUSH is available only in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, while UberCOMMUTE is still in a pilot phase in Chengdu, China and Chicago. UberPOOL is in 30 cities worldwide.

Uber is lobbying state lawmakers to pass legislation that would give ride-sharing companies, including rival Lyft and YellowCab’s zTrip, permanent authority to operate in Pennsylvania. On Monday, the House Consumer Affairs Committee tabled the bill, which passed the Senate last fall.

In a statement on Monday, Uber blamed the influence of taxi drivers in Philadelphia. The lawmakers “once again bowed to pressure from taxi special interests,” wrote Uber spokesman Craig Ewer. “We will be educating and engaging the public and make sure House representatives who are sitting on their hands hear from their constituents.”

©2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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