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Pittsburgh offers ultimate test for Uber's self-driving Fusions

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, May 19, 2016, 6:07 a.m.
An Uber-owned Ford Fusion drives itself along North Shore Drive in Pittsburgh in May 2016.
An Uber-owned Ford Fusion drives itself along North Shore Drive in Pittsburgh in May 2016.

The car took control with the click of a button.

Mathew Priest, the Uber employee in the driver's seat who was no more than a passenger at this point, took his hands off the wheel and foot off the pedal as the car drove itself east on the 31st Street Bridge.

The Ford Fusion slowed to a stop behind several cars at a red light and turned left onto River Avenue.

Uber is testing its fleet of self-driving cars on the streets, bridges and hills of Pittsburgh, the ride-sharing company confirmed Wednesday.

The San Francisco-based firm has said little about its progress in developing autonomous vehicles since it opened the Advanced Technology Center 15 months ago in Pittsburgh's Strip District.

John Bares, head of Uber's Pittsburgh lab, took a Tribune-Review reporter on a ride in a Fusion hybrid that drove itself for portions of the trip.

It was the first time Uber allowed a member of the media to ride in a test car in self-driving mode, he said.

“This is super early — what's the word? — nascent technology,” Bares said. “In general, this whole set of sensors is trying to do better than a human.”

Uber cars have been spotted on Pittsburgh roads for about a year, mapping the city. Self-driving car test runs started a few weeks ago. There have not been any crashes involving the cars.

Uber's Fusions are outfitted with cameras, lasers and sensors to help them navigate the city's sometimes tricky streets. The car used Wednesday had 22 coffee cup-sized camera lenses, a whirling laser on the roof and laser sensors at the corners. Its cameras, sensors and laser can see more than 100 meters in all directions.

Devoted to robotics

The car is the latest robot in Bares's 35 years of work. A drive to use robots to perform tasks too dangerous for humans led him to the cavernous former Fudgie Wudgie factory that Uber made its epicenter for self-driving car development.

Bares, 53, came to Pittsburgh in 1981 to study at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering and a doctorate in philosophy. He worked on a robot in 1982 and 1983 that went into Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station a couple of years after its partial meltdown to take photos.

“That was sort of the beginning of the bug in me, that I loved robotics and sending robots to do things that were dangerous and unsafe for humans,” Bares said.

He headed CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years and in 2010 left to start Carnegie Robotics. The company worked on using robots to detect land mines and improvised explosive devices in war zones.

About a year and a half ago, Bares met Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO. Kalanick told Bares that he wanted to develop self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. He asked Bares to join the effort.

Bares agreed.

About 33,000 people a year die in the United States in auto crashes. About 94 percent of those crashes are the result of human error, Bares said.

“Can we make our roads safer? Can we let people be productive in their cars ... but be safer while they do it?” Bares asked. “That's the thing that tugs me, and I think we can do that over time.”

Challenging terrain

Bares said Pittsburgh's narrow and hilly streets, haphazard parking, rainy and snowy weather and aging infrastructure have made the city a challenging place to test self-driving technology.

“We have the world's best test site right at our doorstep,” Bares said. “It's not quite Everest, but it's a hard mountain. ... The beautiful thing is we do have that mountain right out of our front door to climb.”

The car will accelerate, brake, steer and perform other basic functions on its own. It switches out of self-driving mode with a loud beep if its sensors detect a car swerving into its lane or it encounters something it does not recognize or know how to negotiate. The driver can take control of the car at any time.

“We're looking for instances to make it difficult for the computer to drive,” Bares said. “We find those and we work on them.”

The car's sensors have detected parked cars sticking out into traffic, people jaywalking, bicyclists and a goose crossing River Avenue. The car also can detect potholes.

“The hard thing with a pothole is you don't always want to do what a human does,” Bares said, joking that the car might eventually be programmed to identify a pothole and contact the city about its location. “Many times, what a human does is dart into the oncoming lane, and that's a risky move.”

Crowded field

Uber joins Google, Carnegie Mellon and other universities, efforts by auto manufacturers and a gaggle of smaller start-ups in the quest to move self-driving cars onto city streets. Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber and Volvo's car division formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets in April to push for the technology.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said it could have self-driving car guidelines ready by July. California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida and Washington, D.C., have enacted autonomous vehicle legislation. Pennsylvania lawmakers and state Department of Transportation officials are working on similar laws.

The state has a provision that says someone capable of driving must be behind the wheel when the car is moving.

“Our first and foremost responsibility is safety,” said Kurt Myers, PennDOT's deputy secretary of driver and vehicle services. “But we want to do everything that we can to encourage the testing of this technology.”

Under California law, Google and other companies must report to the state, which publishes publicly all crashes involving self-driving cars. That state's website lists 14 incidents since December 2014; twelve involved a Google car.

Google started testing a self-driving Toyota Prius on California freeways in 2009. Its cars have self-driven more than 1.6 million miles on the streets of Mountain View, Calif., Austin, Kirkland, Wash., and the Phoenix metro area.

Carnegie Mellon University, which lost 40 researchers to Uber shortly after its Advanced Technology Center opened, debuted self-driving technology in Western Pennsylvania in 2013 when a modified 2011 Cadillac SRX drove politicians and transportation officials from Cranberry to Pittsburgh International Airport. Early tests in the California desert started 10 to 15 years ago.

In 2014 and 2015, the CMU team took the self-driving Cadillac to Washington for runs around the Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

“That was challenging because you have to drive so much more aggressively,” said Stan Caldwell, executive director of Carnegie Mellon's Traffic21 Institute and an adjunct associate professor of transportation and public policy. “To really advance this technology to where it needs to be, to where it is operated safely, you need to have it in these conditions.”

On the way back to the Strip District, the Uber car sat at a red light at Penn Avenue. Other cars are easy to predict but people are not, Bares said as cyclists and pedestrians passed.

“We've got a long way to go until we can figure out people,” Bares said.

As he finished talking and the car, back under Uber employee Priest's control, waited to turn left onto Penn Avenue, a pedestrian jaywalked.

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