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One year after they hit the road in Pittsburgh, challenges remain for Uber self-driving cars

| Thursday, May 18, 2017, 7:24 p.m.
Ardavan Bidgoli
One of Uber's self-driving Volvos was spotted in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Uber's unveiling of its autonomous fleet Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, from their Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Trib reporter Aaron Aupperlee gets behind the wheel of one of Uber's new autonomous fleet Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, while driving near their Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Uber unveiled a self-driving car at a media event in the Strip District neighborhood in Pittsburgh on Sept. 13, 2016.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Raffi Krikorian, an Uber engineer, speaks during the company's unveiling of its autonomous fleet Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, from their Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.

The whirling tops of Uber's self-driving cars still turn heads as they roll up and down Pittsburgh's streets.

But the wow factor is wearing off.

It was a year ago that Uber announced it was testing autonomous vehicles on the city's streets.

The tests ignited a new industry in Pittsburgh. They shined a spotlight on the depth of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, computer sensing and perception and self-driving technology talent at the city's universities and startups.

But the tests also brought to the surface questions about how cities should manage self-driving cars and the roles and responsibilities of the companies developing and testing them.

"It's true that people are not alarmed when they see self-driving cars on the street," said Laura Wiens, a member of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, who in February helped organize a protest of Uber in the Strip District. "What it means for our city is alarming."

READ: Pittsburgh offers ultimate test for Uber's self-driving Fusions , May 19, 2016

CHALLENGES AND RESPONSIBILITIES

Uber needed to test its cars on city streets not just to test the technology but to test the reaction.

The company has collected data throughout its tests in Pittsburgh and later in Tempe, Ariz., to improve its self-driving technology and how riders use it. Uber hasn't released data from its tests. A company spokesman said it's still early and the company is constantly finding ways to improve its technology.

"Real-world operations is critical to the development of our self-driving technology," Uber spokesman Craig Ewer told the Tribune-Review when asked what Uber has learned about self-driving cars in the last year. "One of the biggest challenges we have is changing the way people think about cars and the way we've traditionally designed our cities around them."

RELATED: Uber's self-driving cars still need some human assistance, documents show

Uber launched its ride-sharing service in Pittsburgh in early 2014. Mayor Bill Peduto, who advocated on behalf of Uber and its competitor, Lyft, when the Pennsylvania Utility Commission shut them down for operating in the state without the proper permits, said lobbying the company to base its self-driving development center in Pittsburgh and not San Francisco started that year as well.

"Anything that was required on the city side, we were able to deliver," Peduto said. "On the other side, we had expectations from them, and we still do.

"They haven't yet delivered on that part of it, but that doesn't mean that I don't think they will."

RELATED: Peduto acknowledges he can't make Uber offer benefits, but he can try

Uber has said it is proud of its operations in Pittsburgh and that the company hopes to continue to have a positive presence in the city. The company has not commented on whether it would sign an agreement as Peduto has proposed.

Wiens is disappointed more concerns weren't raised at the beginning of Uber's forays into autonomous vehicles. She said there wasn't enough foresight into what self-driving technology would do to jobs, especially driving jobs. There wasn't planning for training or for a transition for workers who could lose their jobs.

"We in Pittsburgh have seen what happens if you have automation happening in major industries," Wiens said. "And we don't really want to be the ones leading ourselves off the cliff again."

'THIS IS HAPPENING'

Aside from the company temporarily suspending its testing in March when a self-driving Volvo was involved in a crash in Tempe, only minor bumps, scrapes and mishaps have been reported in Pittsburgh.

The cars have integrated themselves almost seamlessly into Pittsburgh's traffic, a feat in and of itself.

"We demonstrated in Pittsburgh that it's really uneventful," said Stan Caldwell, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's Traffic21 Institute. "The un-eventfulness of it is the significance of it."

Caldwell said that no matter how advanced or life-changing a technology is, if it runs into public resistance or fails to gain wide public acceptance, "it's not going to go anywhere."

"There was a lot of concern initially that when these vehicles hit the streets, there was going to be a lot of chaos," Caldwell said.

Uber wasn't the first company to test self-driving cars. Google had logged more than 1.6 million miles in autonomous vehicles when Uber announced it was testing in Pittsburgh. Caldwell said other universities and teams at car companies were quietly working on self-driving technology until Uber started testing.

"What it's done, it's helped to advance the open competition," Caldwell said. "All of the sudden, this made this a very public competition as opposed to everyone working internally."

That public competition has been good for Pittsburgh, said Mike Wagner, whose company, Edge Case Research , helps self-driving car companies improve the safety of their systems. He said Uber's tests in Pittsburgh have further re-enforced how central the city is to autonomous and self-driving technology.

Companies looking to get into the self-driving car race are looking to Pittsburgh for talent more than before, Wagner said. Researchers from CMU are heading self-driving car projects at Uber and other companies. And companies like his are busy.

"We've definitely gotten a lot of attention that we have not gotten had Uber gone somewhere else," Wagner said.

RELATED: Tech firms keep expanding 'Robotics Row,' Pittsburgh's mini Silicon Valley

But even Wagner and the researchers at CMU are already working on what's next, and what's next in self-driving cars is how to integrate them. Wagner said he is talking with Pittsburgh city council members about what other technologies are out there to improve the safety of self-driving cars. Caldwell said his staff is focusing on the policy issues that need to be addressed and working with the city and PennDOT.

"Everyone, now, is believing that this is happening," Wagner said.

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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