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Uber Debuts Self-Driving Test Car in Pittsburgh

The company joins Lyft, Google and others in the race to develop the technology that will allow humans to let go of the wheel.

Uber is officially testing self-driving cars on public roads.

The rideshare giant announced May 19 that it’s begun testing a Ford Fusion hybrid car outfitted with sensors and automated driving technology on the streets of Pittsburgh, home to its Carnegie Mellon University-tied Advanced Technologies Center. Ford has already partnered with Google to help build self-driving cars, while Uber’s largest competitor, Lyft, has been working with General Motors since January to develop autonomous taxis.

Programs from many leaders in the field — including Lyft and Ford — lean toward the concept that society might one day move away from personal vehicle ownership. If vehicles are able to drive without humans available, that could allow people to eschew buying a car in favor of simply hailing rides for wherever they need to go. That could have implications for city planning, car design and even insurance.

The program will involve testing both the car’s self-driving software and its mapping technology. Though dynamic traffic maps already exist, many companies are looking to build far more detailed maps to support automated driving — including constantly changing maps that reflect data pulled from connected and autonomous vehicles. Uber has been working with the University of Arizona on developing maps for self-driving cars.

Uber stressed in its announcement that its primary focus is safety. It pointed — as most autonomous vehicle developers do in public statements — to statistics estimating that more than 90 percent of auto accidents are due to human error. Some have speculated that automated driving could prevent most or all of those accidents, while more skeptical observers have noted that that figure represents an upper bound, and that it’s very possible that people will still die in autonomous vehicles.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.