The self-driving car era has begun for Uber riders in Pittsburgh.
As of this morning (Sept. 14), about 1,000 select Uber customers in the Steel City may find autonomous vehicles answering their ride requests. Uber is putting four self-driving Ford Fusions on the road to start and has at least 11 more of those models in Pittsburgh. The company plans to add up to 100 Volvo SUVs to the pilot program by the end of the year.
Whether Pittsburgh is ready for the driverless future is unclear, but that didn’t stop Uber from inviting dozens of journalists—including Quartz—to its driverless car research facility, the Advanced Technology Center (ATC), to request, ride in, and even briefly “drive” an autonomous taxi earlier this week.
Hailing a self-driving Uber was much like summoning a regular Uber: We opened the app, requested a car, and waited for it to head in our direction. At the end of the trip, we were still asked to rate the ride. (We gave it five out of five stars for fear of antagonizing our future robot overlords.) The only differences were the words ”SAFETY DRIVER” where the driver’s name would usually appear and a small note below them reading, “Self-Driving Uber.”
The modified Ford we rode in had two Uber engineers sitting up front—one to assume control if the car got into a situation it couldn’t navigate, and one to track everything the car saw and did on a laptop. (This will be the case for anyone riding in a self-driving Uber for the foreseeable future.) That data is fed back to ATC and eventually shared with Uber’s other self-driving vehicles so they could learn from those experiences as well.
In the backseat, there was a touchscreen that attempted to convey how the car viewed the world. The screen had multicolored topographical lines that indicated how far objects were, and how tall. It also displayed the car’s current speed and its next intended moves. For example, when our car approached a stop sign, the touchscreen told us that the vehicle planned to brake. (The screen also had a button to take a rider selfie. We tried it, but never received the selfie.)
At first, the ride was disconcerting. The car didn’t operate like the average human driver (or “by the book,” as some criticized Google’s self-driving cars of doing). Instead it was hyper-efficient.
When the speed limit was 35 mph, our car went exactly 35 mph. When that limit increased, it accelerated aggressively to reach the new speed, like an inexperienced teenager. When the car was on a road where Uber’s engineers had determined oncoming trucks were more likely to veer out of their lane, the car stuck unsettlingly close to the curb. When a truck was crossing in front of us, Uber’s car did not slow down, rather it seemed to calculate that the truck would pass through the intersection before we reached it.
At the same time, the car didn’t always navigate with such confidence. It would slow down when approaching traffic lights and then speed through them after registering that they were green. It took the corners on right-hand turns very slowly. When Bloomberg reported in mid-August that Uber’s self-driving cars were having trouble crossing bridges, Uber ATC director Raffi Krikorian noted that “bridges are really hard.” (There are over 400 bridges in Pittsburgh; our car managed fine in traversing two of them.) Uber says it is working through these issues.
All of these operating decisions might make sense to a robot, but they were unnerving from the backseat of a vehicle that was traveling public streets in a city filled with traffic, pedestrians, bridges, and every other variety of obstacle that would be routine for a human driver.
After riding around part of downtown Pittsburgh, the engineers drove us to a lot across the river from the ATC and let Quartz reporter Mike Murphy sit in the driver’s seat. He was shown how to engage the car’s autonomous mode, and told to loosely grip the wheel, in case he needed to take over. After Mike’s initial impulses to grab the wheel, apply the brakes, and generally control the car subsided, it was surprising how quickly he forgot he was sitting in the driver’s seat of a massive moving object. He soon began chatting with the Uber engineer in the passenger seat, and took his hands off the wheel. The engineer was clearly trained for this, and directed Mike to pay attention when there was a chance that he would need to take over driving.
We never felt acutely unsafe in Uber’s driverless car, but we were also very glad to have two experienced humans sitting behind the wheel and monitoring everything it did. On our five-mile journey, our engineer-driver took over control of the car twice—once because the car changed lanes and a truck was stopped in front of it, and the other for a similar reason. But you probably wouldn’t have noticed unless you were really paying attention: the only indications to the passenger that the car was no longer being driven by a computer was a single “ding” noise and a colorless flag on the screen in front of them saying “self-driving off.” Overall, our trip was relatively tame. The vast majority of the route—especially section 3 on the map above—had very little traffic or other human activity.
Pittsburgh is a sprawling, complicated city, and for now Uber’s cars will only traverse particular swathes of it that have been meticulously mapped by engineers, such as the route we traveled. This will also include Pittsburgh’s downtown, its stadiums and college campuses, and the Strip District, the historically industrial neighborhood along the Allegheny River where Uber last year set up the ATC. The company is rushing to beat tech giants like Google and Tesla, as well as traditional automakers, in making the self-driving experience available to everyday users.
But for all that Uber is branding this new, highly supervised experience in Pittsburgh ”Self-Driving Ubers,” the true driverless future still feels very far away.