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How Uber built self-driving cars in Pittsburgh

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, 9:48 p.m.
Uber's unveiling of its autonomous fleet Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016 from their Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Uber's unveiling of its autonomous fleet Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016 from their Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.
Uber's unveiling of its autonomous fleet Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, from their Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Uber's unveiling of its autonomous fleet Tuesday Sept. 13, 2016, from their Pittsburgh headquarters in the Strip District.
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.
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.

A former vice president from Twitter heads software development.

Employees from SpaceX, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other aerospace companies work on safety.

An engineer who ran the back end of Duolingo's language learning app teaches autonomous cars to recognize what they see on Pittsburgh roads.

Uber's Advanced Technology Center has filled four buildings in the Strip District and a testing facility at the Almono development in Hazelwood with employees from technology giants, automotive powerhouses, Pittsburgh robotic startups, top universities, bars, restaurants and retails stores, a Tribune-Review analysis found.

The ATC put self-driving cars on the road in Pittsburgh and was the first company in the United States to offer rides to the public in an autonomous vehicle.

And Uber did it in less than two years.

"This Uber thing is such a unique event. It's unprecedented," said Steve DiAntonio, president and CEO of Carnegie Robotics. DiAntonio lost several employees to Uber, including John Bares, who started Carnegie Robotics and then left five years later to head the ATC. "When an organization went from zero to where they are now, that's a cataclysmic event."

Uber ATC senior staff


• John Bares, Director

• Anthony Levandowski, VP for Engineering & Head of Advanced Technologies Group

• Raffi Krikorian, Software Director & Pittsburgh Site Lead

• Eric Meyhofer, Engineering Lead

• Drew Bagnell, Senior Manager, Engineering


To peek inside the secretive ATC, the Tribune-Review catalogued LinkedIn accounts of employees who reported that they work for the San Francisco-based ride sharing company's Pittsburgh operation. The Trib sifted through more than 400 Uber employee profiles registered with the online networking service, excluding drivers and built a database of more than 300 people who reported working at the ATC, noting the name, job title, previous employers and education.

Uber won't confirm how many people it employes at the ATC. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto often says the center has 500 employees and intends to double its workforce. Uber doesn't dispute Peduto's claims.

Day 1, nothing

The Advanced Technology Center started with the idea of a self-driving car, but no car.

Raffi Krikorian, a former vice president of engineering at Twitter in charge of Twitter's platform and now the ATC's software director, started about a month after the center launched. He was one of the center's first 50 hires.

"When I showed up, the shop floor had five Ford Fusions completely in a disassembled state, just lying on the floor," Krikorian said in an interview with the Tribune-Review. "It was like a weird operating table. There was nothing on Day 1."

Uber started its quest for a self-driving car by looking for the world's best robotics team. This happened before Krikorian was hired, but he has heard stories about Uber looking for roboticists in Europe, Asia and across the United States.

The company liked what it found in Pittsburgh, Krikorian said. The city wasn't only a hotbed of academic robotics research — Uber quickly hired away 40 robotics scientists and researchers from Carnegie Mellon University — but it also had companies putting that research in the field.

"They were really builders," Krikorian said.

About 13 percent of the employees at the ATC came from robotics companies, and about 10 percent hailed from Pittsburgh robotics companies such as 4Moms, RedZone Robotics, the National Robotics Engineering Center, Carnegie Robotics and others, according to the Trib's research. Kevin Dowling, CEO of Kaarta, a Pittsburgh mapping and surveying company for robotics, said the employees Uber brought together all "grew up" in CMU labs.

Uber map

They are makers and doers, Dowling said, and Pittsburgh is one of a few places in the world with a concentration of that type of robotics talent.

Dowling said he knows many Uber employees from his time at CMU and from 4Moms, where he was vice president of engineering. He watched some 4Moms employees leave to go to Uber while he was at the company. So did DiAntonio at Carnegie Robotics. The employees didn't part with bad blood, both said. It's what happens in that field.

"I've always encouraged people within their careers to move where it makes sense," Dowling said. "Why hold someone back if they have an opportunity to advance in their career?"

'Transformational technical innovations'

At Twitter, Krikorian and his team pushed new products to the web 100 times a day. Uber needed that speed and scale to get on the road.

With a robotics team in place, Uber began to work on building software for the cars, Krikorian said. That's when he and others from top tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and others arrived. Uber looked for people who developed large-scale software products and pushed that code into the real world quickly.

More than a third of the ATC's employees came from technology companies, according to the Trib's research. Those from Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple make up more than half of the tech talent.

Former Google employees that worked in the company's autonomous car program and on Google Glass are now at Uber's ATC. A former software developer at Apple who worked on productivity apps is now at the ATC along with a former software engineer intern that worked on bugs in Facebook's Messenger app.

Daniel Culbertson, an economist in the job-posting search engine Indeed's research division, has studied hiring trends in autonomous car fields. He said companies such as Uber aren't necessarily looking for engineers with specific skills but for people with problem-solving skills.

"These workers are going to come from everywhere," Culbertson said. "Specific skills might not transfer over, but they are looking for people who can solve complex problems."

Well over half of the employees at Uber's ATC came from Pittsburgh-area companies, the Trib's research showed. Pittsburgh companies like Nowait , NetApp and Duolingo make up a large portion of the other half of the ATC's tech talent.

John Yocca, president of A.C. Coy, a Peters-based tech recruiting firm, said Uber likely was attracted to these companies because they were working on "transformational technical innovations."

"These guys were doing something that no one else was doing," Yocca said.

Krikorian said Uber hired some of those people to continue their work but in a robotics environment. Other people find themselves in new roles.

An engineer from Duolingo who ran the language learning app's infrastructure now works on machine learning for what Uber's robot cars see on the roads. Krikorian calls Uber's ATC "Candy Land for engineers."

"Whatever problem you want to work on, we probably need to work on it at some point," Krikorian said.

About 12 percent of the ATC's employees came from universities or other education-focused nonprofits, with CMU faculty making up the majority. CMU graduates also dominate the ATC workforce.

The ATC also hired employees from Ford, General Motors, Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW and other auto manufacturers, according to the Trib's data. Krikorian said these employees have helped with automotive design, merging how a car works with autonomous technology and keeping Uber's cars functioning.

A designer from Tesla joined Uber's ranks. An attorney that handled connectivity issues for Ford ­­— safety, privacy, cyber security and others — is now senior counsel for Uber.

There is a strong presence of employees from aerospace and aviation companies at the ATC that Krikorian said were brought on because of the nature of that business. Krikorian said Uber wanted the experience of the people who design the autopilot software for commercial airplanes. Uber also wanted people familiar with the risk and safety concerns of space travel and rockets. A former life support systems engineer at SpaceX is now a hardware engineer at the ATC.

"If you think what the aerospace industry does," Krikorian said, "they are really are fundamentally concerned with, can we do sound engineering techniques and build something that is fault-tolerant, that is reliable, that you can control in the event of failure."

21st century cartographers

More than half of the ATC's employees having the word "engineer" in their title, according to the Trib's data. Another 12 percent work on mapping.

"Maps that we would get from Google or NavTech or TomTom aren't accurate enough," Krikorian said. "We need maps that are accurate to a centimeter, effectively, so we've been creating our own maps, so you can think of our map production people as this century's version of cartographers."

Krikorian said Uber bet on creating a self-driving car out of data. The company collects a lot of data, and its engineers take that and train computers to do what a human would.

As Uber's self-driving cars move around Pittsburgh, they record information about their environment. Labeling engineers at the ATC examine hours of video and radar and laser data to identify traffic signals, pedestrians and bicyclists to train the computer.

Another large group of employees are developmental vehicle operators — test drivers. These are the safety drivers behind the steering wheels of the self-driving cars and the person sitting in the passenger seat. They are trained in how the car works and to trust the car, Krikorian said.

Test drivers spent a lot of time on Uber's test track in Hazelwood getting a feel for how the car reacts to scenarios, Krikorian said. They come from all walks of life. Former Uber drivers are test drivers. People who worked in bars, real estate, top tech companies and hotels are test drivers.

"They know what the car will do in a challenging situation so they won't panic," Krikorian said. "So they know if a car is really close to them and slams the brake, they know our car will stop."

LOOKING FOR A GOOD MECHANIC

There aren't many former Uber ATC employees on LinkedIn. The few the Tribune-Review found and contacted declined to comment, citing nondisclosure agreements they signed. But as Uber's ATC matures, people will move on. That's the life cycle of a fast-paced tech company.

There are many people who are going to build autonomous cars, Krikorian said. A study by Indeed, the online job classified search engine, showed the number of postings for autonomous car-related jobs increased seven-fold from 2014 to 2016. Companies like GM, Google, Ford, Bosch and BMW are among the top firms looking for talent.

Krikorian said he believes Uber offers the best opportunity right now to work on self-driving cars. But what comes next?

"We are firmly in R&D phase," Krikorian said. "And as we transition to doing more production and stuff like that, the challenge for us will be, do we start up more R&D threads so that people can stay and do more R&D-like tinkering, or are we going to move to full production."

DiAntonio of Carnegie Robotics and Dowling of Kaarta expect Uber employees to start peeling off from the ATC. Smaller companies composed of former ATC employees could form, or those employees could stay in Pittsburgh and tackle new problems, both said.

"Now the robotics technical community is much larger," DiAntonio said.

In the meantime, Uber is hiring. The company had more than 60 Pittsburgh-based jobs posted on the ATC website. And if you know a good mechanic, they're looking for one.

Uber in Pittsburgh: A timeline


February 2015: Uber and Carnegie Mellon University announce a partnership that will involve the company locating its Advanced Technologies Center to build self-driving cars in Pittsburgh.

May 2015: Wall Street Journal reports Uber hired away 40 robotics researchers and scientists from CMU.

September 2015: Uber gives CMU $5.5 million to fund a faculty chair and three robotics fellowships.

February 2016: Uber announces it will build a test track and testing facility at the Almono development in Hazelwood.

May 2016: Uber gives a Tribune-Review reporter an exclusive ride in a self-driving Ford Fusion , publicly announcing for the first time that it's actively testing self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh.

August 2016: Uber announces it will begin offering the public rides in their fleet of self-driving cars.

September 2016: Uber shows its fleet of self-driving Ford Fusions and the prototype of a self-driving Volvo to the media during a two-day event at the ATC. The company announces that select Uber customers will be offered rides in the cars that week.

October 2016: Uber's self-driving Volvos are spotted on Pittsburgh's streets.

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