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Uber plans major expansion at self-driving car test track in Pittsburgh

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, March 23, 2017, 6:15 p.m.
Cars sit on model streets inside of the Uber self-driving-car test track in Hazelwood on Thursday, March 23, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Cars sit on model streets inside of the Uber self-driving-car test track in Hazelwood on Thursday, March 23, 2017.
Cars sit on model streets inside of the Uber self-driving-car test track in Hazelwood on Thursday, March 23, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Cars sit on model streets inside of the Uber self-driving-car test track in Hazelwood on Thursday, March 23, 2017.

Uber plans to double its office and storage space at its test track at the Almono development site in Pittsburgh's Hazelwood neighborhood.

The company wants to add about 7,000 square feet of office space to the existing 6,000 square feet at the test track site and 9,250 square feet of storage space to the existing 11,000 square feet, the company told Pittsburgh's Zoning Board of Adjustment on Thursday.

Jeff Fullerton, engineering operations manager at Uber's Advanced Technology Center, said as the company's operations in Pittsburgh have expanded, it has needed more room at the test track. Fullerton said the company is in the early planning stages of the project and didn't have a timeline for completion.

Appearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment to seek approval was the first step, Fullerton said.

“So what the heck is a test track and what are you going to do with it?” asked Alice Mitinger, chair of the board.

Fullerton replied that the track is Uber's local proving ground for its autonomous vehicles but didn't elaborate much more. Uber tests new autonomous driving software at the track before it is used on public roads.

Uber's test track sits at the southern end of the 178-acre Almono development at the site of the former LTV steel mill. The facility's roads and buildings are temporary. The section of the Almono development where the test track sits ultimately will become housing. Uber is responsible for removing its test track and the buildings associated with it to make way for the housing. The site is zoned residential, but Uber is using it for commercial purposes. That's why it needs board approval to expand.

Uber began developing the site last year and has it for three to five years.

The 42-acre test track site is surrounded by a high fence draped in black cloth. Peering over the fence gives a glimpse of a network of streets, stop signs and traffic lights. There are shipping containers stacked to look like buildings and parked vehicles along the roads.

Fullerton wouldn't say how many cars the company tests at the facility. On an afternoon this month, at least six cars could be seen driving around the facility.

The company has been hesitant to identify its facilities throughout the city. Five are known: four in the Strip District and the Almono test track. The company also signed a 10-year lease for a portion of the roundhouse building at Almono.

The company will be back in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment in April when it will ask to build an eight-foot privacy fence at its 32nd Street facility in the Strip District. Zoning rules require side and rear setback for fences. Uber is requesting no setbacks.

Enforcement of zoning rules and careful consideration of requests for zoning variances are among the few tools the city has to control Uber's use of Pittsburgh as a proving ground. The state controls the rules of the roads, and legislation aimed at regulating the testing of autonomous vehicles in Pennsylvania is stuck in committee in Harrisburg.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been critical of Uber of late and its reluctance to partner with the city. The mayor has blamed Uber's unwillingness to work with the city for Pittsburgh losing to Columbus, Ohio, in the U.S. Department of Transportation's $50 million Smart City Challenge.

Uber and city officials have no formal agreements or partnerships, said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for the mayor.

Uber did not request nor did the city grant permission for it to use the city streets for testing its self-driving cars. The city couldn't grant or deny such permission if it wanted to, McNulty said.

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

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