Uber-users in Pittsburgh now have the opportunity to ride in an autonomous vehicle. It's the first time self-driving cars have been made so freely available to the U.S. public and Uber is confident it won't be the last.
Autonomous Ford Fusions owned by Uber, manned by a backup driver and an engineer in the front seat for safety, rolled slowly and cautiously through some of the city’s grittier neighborhoods as pedestrians curiously looked on. During a demonstration ride for The Wall Street Journal, our robo-taxi obeyed speed limits, stayed in its lane and never shot through yellow lights. It struggled with some obstacles and once jarringly hit the brakes.
The test represents Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick’s audacious vision to one day roll out an entire fleet of autonomous vehicles to replace the company’s roughly 1.5 million drivers and to ferry commuters, packages and food around urban centers. It is a dream shared by Detroit auto makers, Tesla Motors Inc.’s Elon Musk and a host of startups, which believe such driverless autos will one day be safer than manned vehicles.
It isn’t clear when fully autonomous vehicles will roam city streets, although Ford Motor Co. has a five-year goal.
In the meantime, Uber is turning Pittsburgh into an experimental lab, summoning the public to participate before any laws have been written. Uber invited up to 1,000 of its “most loyal” Pittsburgh customers to experience the futuristic vehicles in the first U.S. real-world test of self-driving cars for regular people.
Uber said the test lets it gather valuable feedback from customers. “We’ve done extensive testing for 18 months and several members of our team have dedicated their careers to this kind of technology,” an Uber spokeswoman said.
An early view shows there are still kinks to work out. During our run, the sedan drove only about 20 yards before encountering an obstacle that caused it to halt: a large truck was stopped in the middle of a side street, straddling the center lane. The cars are programmed to stop and remain in their lanes in such cases, so the backup driver had to take control to scoot around the truck.
The car drove itself through a warehouse district and into the heavier traffic of downtown Pittsburgh. When several pedestrians spotted the radar device spinning on top of the Fusion, they stopped in the middle of the street to gape. The car waited for them to move.
Minutes later, the car braked suddenly at the approach of a vehicle that appeared briefly to be veering into its path, jostling its passengers. Uber software writers are tweaking their programs to help the car distinguish between likely and unlikely threats.
“We’re still rapidly learning,” said Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber’s Pittsburgh Advanced Technologies Center.
The cars can’t yet make right turns at red lights, which may frustrate impatient passengers and cars behind them. The move, which requires edging forward and carefully scanning for traffic, is beyond the program’s limits. Uber managers promised to rectify this soon.