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Self-Driving Ubers Go Live in Pittsburgh

After driving millions of miles testing its cars, Uber will offer rides in downtown Pittsburgh, although the riders will be accompanied by two employees to gather data and take over should anything go wrong.

(TNS) -- Uber today will begin offering Pittsburghers the first public rides in its self-driving vehicles. But not everyone will get the chance — just frequent customers beginning and ending their trips in a limited area Downtown and in the Strip District.

Uber officials provided a press briefing and demonstration rides Monday and Tuesday in the company’s self-driving Ford Fusions. The company will email a few thousand of its most frequent users today to tell them they could receive a ride in a self-driving vehicle — at no charge for now — if their trip meets the criteria.

Initially, the trips will be limited to a well-defined area where Uber drivers and technicians have been testing vehicles for nearly 18 months. Only a handful of the self-driving vehicles will be available, so not everyone who wants one will get one — or the free ride.

After driving millions of miles testing its cars, Uber will become the second company to offer public rides in self-driving vehicles. The first was a Singapore company that began using self-driving taxis last month.

Uber will use the rest of the self-driving fleet to continue traveling throughout the region with sensors and technicians to gather millions of pieces of information about road conditions so the vehicles’ computers can be programmed to travel safely. It sees self-driving vehicles as a way to reduce accidents and traffic deaths because vehicle sensors react faster than humans as well as reducing congestion and air pollution.

Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District, said Pittsburgh’s “organic” collection of hills, narrow streets and winding roads is an “ideal” test ground for Uber’s technology. Borrowing a term to describe the most difficult ski slopes, he called Pittsburgh’s streets a “double black diamond” challenge for the company’s software engineers.

“We’re learning every day as we go out on the road,” he said.

Self-driving Ubers will be limited to two passengers in the back seat. In the front seat, a driver will be available to override the automatic system when necessary and a technician will sit beside him with a laptop computer to record the trip.

That’s a labor-intense operation, Mr. Krikorian said, so the company’s goal is to reduce that to one emergency driver in the front seat and eventually no one as soon as technology and passenger comfort allows.

What It Looks Like

The Ford Fusions are the first generation of Uber’s self-driving fleet, vehicles bought right off the lot and adapted with a series of 20 cameras and seven lasers, most mounted on the roof but others on the front and rear bumpers. The lasers are dispersed at 360 degrees to gather 1.4 million pieces of information per second and feed it into a computer in the vehicle’s trunk. The computer also gets information from cameras and crunches it all together to help control the car’s steering, braking and acceleration.

In the back seat is a computer with a touch screen that welcomes passengers and asks, after they put their seat belts on, if they are “All set?” and then “Here we go,” signalling the driver to proceed. During the ride, this touch screen shows an animated-like version of the vehicle’s path, whether the vehicle is in self-driving mode and how fast it is going.

It dings like a cell phone receiving a message if the driver assumes operation of the vehicle.

In the front seat, the dashboard immediately in front of the driver looks normal, except it has a small series of indicators that show the driver that the vehicle is ready to be put in autonomous mode. To do so, the driver pushes a button where the cup holder normally is to prepare the system, then another to allow it to take over the vehicle’s operation.

A computer screen is installed in the dash where the vehicle’s sound system normally would be.

For now, the technician sits beside the driver, sharing information about when to consider taking over operation and recording other information for future use.

In the next few months, Uber will begin rolling out up to 100 Volvo CX90s, vehicles designed in conjunction with the manufacturer specifically for self-driving. Its equipment is clearly smaller and less imposing, which lead engineer Eric Meyhofer compared to moving from a desktop computer to a laptop.

“Every time we make a version, it is smaller and lighter,” he said.

Benefits for Pittsburgh

Uber came to Pittsburgh 18 months ago to take advantage of the software engineering talent at Carnegie Mellon University, in particular. It has hired more than 500 employees locally and invested several hundred million dollars in the Strip District site and a test track under construction at the Almono site in Hazelwood.

The firm is in a race with Google, General Motors, Tesla and other companies developing self-driving technology. NuTonomy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off company in Singapore, began operating self-driving taxis Aug. 24 in a 2.5-square-mile area.

Mayor Bill Peduto sees Uber as a groundbreaking company that fits well with the kind of transportation, economy and environmental improvements the city envisioned in its unsuccessful attempt to win a $50 million Smart City grant. That effort called for using technology to create a series of transportation spines, traffic signals that give priority to transit and freight vehicles and an "electric avenue" between Downtown and Hazelwood for self-driving vehicles charged at solar power stations.

“What Uber is doing with autonomous vehicles is something the world is shifting to, so over the course of the next 30 years there will be an industry born somewhere,” Mr. Peduto said. “The question is will it be born in Pittsburgh, Singapore, Germany ... We hope we can build it here."

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