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5 reasons Pittsburgh is still tops in self-driving cars

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, July 19, 2017, 2:48 p.m.
Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Rajkumar holds his hands up to show that his vehicle is driving itself through the parking lot of the Bob O'Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park on Wednesday June 1, 2016. CMU's latest self-driving car is a 2011 Cadillac SRX that takes ramps, merges onto highways and cruises at 70 mph by itself.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Rajkumar holds his hands up to show that his vehicle is driving itself through the parking lot of the Bob O'Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park on Wednesday June 1, 2016. CMU's latest self-driving car is a 2011 Cadillac SRX that takes ramps, merges onto highways and cruises at 70 mph by itself.
Boss, an autonomous Chevy Suburban, won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.
Boss, an autonomous Chevy Suburban, won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.

Not so fast, Bay Area.

Pittsburgh isn't ready to hand over the keys to self-driving cars yet.

In a story published last weekend, The San Francisco Chronicle boasted that the Bay Area had taken over in the race to develop self-driving cars.

"For close to a century, vehicles that could drive themselves belonged to a future that forever seemed a few decades away, a jet-pack dream just out of reach. Now the technology is advancing fast enough that many of those developing it predict human-driven cars will be obsolete within a generation," the article stated. "The creative engine for this world-shifting technology, its main laboratory and testing ground, is the Bay Area."


READ: How the Bay Area took over the self-driving car business


Well, Pittsburgh might have a thing or two to say about that.

It's important to note that the Bay Area plays an inextricable role in the development of self-driving cars, but Pittsburgh has been its base.

Google, arguably, was the first major company to tackle autonomous cars, testing a self-driving Toyota Prius on California freeways in 2009 and later on city streets around its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. But Google's pioneering self-driving efforts were lead by robotics scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, located in the heart of Pittsburgh.

Here are five reasons Pittsburgh is and was firmly in control of our self-driving future.

1) Pittsburgh was first: Before Sebastian Thrun and Chris Urmson went to Google to work on self-driving cars, they were among the scientists at CMU building cars to drive themselves around campus and nearby parks, like NavLab, an autonomous box truck built in 1986 or ALVINN , a retrofitted Army ambulance built in 1989.

And yes, Stanford won the DARPA challenge in 2005, but how hard is it to drive across the desert. CMU won the 2007 version of the challenge, proving its self-driving technology where it counts, on city streets.

2) Uber: The San Francisco ride-sharing company looked to Pittsburgh to develop its self-driving cars. In the Steel City, Uber found the expertise and the expert terrain — hills, confusing streets, bad drivers, worse weather — it needed to jump-start its program . Uber's self-driving Ford Fusions and Volvo SUVs offered the public its first chance to ride in a self-driving car. Eric Meyhofer, a former CMU professor, now leads Uber's self-driving car efforts .

An Uber self-driving Ford Fusion at the company's Advanced Technology Center in the Strip District. Photo: Tribune-Review

3) Top talent: Pittsburgh's talent pool is drawing in other self-driving car companies. Argo AI, the company in which Ford will pump $1 billion , is headquartered in Pittsburgh. Aurora Innovation , a self-driving start-up founded by an all-star crew from Tesla, Google and Uber, has an office in Pittsburgh. Delphi is testing in Pittsburgh. And the city is seeing stealthy start-ups pop up.

According to tipsters providing information to Gizmodo, this is a self-driving car under development by NextDroid, a stealth driverless car and undersea robotics company. This car was spotted parked outside Cube Creative Space in East Liberty. Photo: Gizmodo

4) Support system: Carnegie Robotics continues to build sensors and cameras to help computers see better. Edge Case Research does cutting edge software testing for the programs that power the cars. Pittsburgh's booming tech scene is full of companies working to make driverless cars better.

5) The future: Who knows what's happening deep in the halls and basements of CMU and University of Pittsburgh or even in the classrooms of area elementary, middle and high schools. What we know is that whatever those students are doing, it's pushing the boundaries in robotics, computer vision, deep learning and self-driving tech.

Daniel Wensuslaus, 12, of Bridgeville adjusts his robo disruptor Saturday, April 23, 2016, during a robotics workshop at the Bridgeville Public Library. Photo: Tribune-Review

Rivalry aside, when can I get my hands on a self-driving car? This commute is killing me.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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