Uber’s self-driving cars have come to Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t mean the driverless era is here

One of Uber’s self-driving cars now available for hire in Pittsburgh.
One of Uber’s self-driving cars now available for hire in Pittsburgh.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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When the media descended on Pittsburgh to preview Uber’s self-driving cars earlier this week, local officials had little time to prepare.

The mayor and head of the local county told us Uber sent them notice of a launch event just a few days ahead of time. At Uber, meanwhile, communications and policy staffers from San Francisco to Chicago to New York were summoned to the Steel City to ensure that the ”Self-Driving Uber Media Day”—the biggest debut yet of Uber’s autonomous vehicles—ran smoothly. Even the press were advised little more than a week ahead of time.

The hurried event—and the decision to put just four self-driving vehicles into service for a small group of loyal Uber Pittsburgh users, beginning today—caps a sprint to bring driverless technologies to market. Uber is racing tech competitors like Google as well as traditional automakers. It promised in mid-August to have autonomous taxis ferrying passengers around Pittsburgh by the end of the month, a deadline that, mayor Bill Peduto says, had originally been in November.

Uber’s bet is that self-driving cars will dramatically change the economics of ride-hailing by cutting out the cost of human drivers. It’s also betting that ride-hailing will become safer and more efficient. Travis Kalanick, the company’s founder and CEO, has called the matter ”basically existential” for Uber.

Uber has so far found a willing partner in Pittsburgh, which is eager to refashion itself as the East Coast’s Silicon Valley. “We have created a startup government that recognizes when it comes to innovation, regulation never comes first,” Peduto says. In the US, self-driving cars are currently governed at the state level, and Uber is taking advantage of a regulatory void in Pennsylvania, which has yet to enact autonomous vehicle legislation.

Getting ahead of the law

Uber used this act-first-apologize-later tactic to great effect in popularizing its ride-hailing model; as Kalanick told the Economist (paywall), there are “lots of places where there aren’t regulations at all, so you can just roll out.” Uber has repeatedly defied local officials by offering peer-to-peer rides and betting—correctly—that it can win over users and use them to lobby for regulatory change down the road. In 2015, nearly two dozen US states passed laws that legalized ride-hailing.

The same strategy may not work so well with self-driving cars. For now both Uber and Pittsburgh say they are treading cautiously. The modified Ford Fusions that Uber is putting into operation today will each be manned by a pair of highly trained engineers who can assume control as needed.

But the company also appears to have left key questions unanswered. Uber doesn’t have any form of ethics board. It’s refused to say who would be held liable were a self-driving car involved in an accident, saying it won’t deal in hypotheticals. Those are disconcerting choices now that there are actual autonomous cars trundling the streets of Pittsburgh. Other tests of driverless technologies have already yielded a few high-profile scrapes.

“If they’re not having the public conversation, they should be having it privately,” says Corey O’Connor, a Pittsburgh city councilman who represents the district where Uber is building a test track for driverless vehicles. “For us, obviously the public safety is the biggest thing.”

But is it ready?

Other than its desire to get ahead of any potential regulation, it’s unclear why Uber is in such a rush to get self-driving cars on the road. Most of its competitors have longer timeframes. Search giants Baidu and Google have said they won’t likely have any offerings until 2018 and 2020, respectively, and BMW is aiming for 2021. Ford has also said it will launch an autonomous ride-hailing service in 2021, and even Volvo’s bold plan for self-driving vehicles in Gothenburg, Sweden, won’t launch until later in 2017.

Uber may have timed its event to coincide with Ford, which also showed off the abilities of its self-driving cars this week, and Volvo, which showed off images of what it claims to be the first production-model autonomous car. But Ford’s demonstration was a short trip around the company’s campus in Dearborn, Michigan—rather than on busy public roads—and Volvo’s car never left the factory floor.

So the key question is, are Uber’s cars ready for the road? When we rode in one this week, the trip was relatively uneventful. But Uber also explained that engineers had meticulously mapped the roads we traversed—so much so that the car hung close to the curb on a street where engineers had realized oncoming trucks were more likely to veer out of their lane. That’s not something you can easily scale. To work safely everywhere, the car needs to be able to react like a human to an oncoming truck, rather than passively responding to preprogramed situations.

Uber said that the cars also couldn’t recognize emergency vehicles’ sirens, and they seemed to struggle with stop lights. These problems presumably will not have been fixed by the time the company’s Ford Fusions pick up their first passengers later today. “They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” Joan Claybrook, the former head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told The Washington Post earlier this week. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”

Uber told us at its event this week that it regards self-driving cars as a problem that will ultimately be solved by software engineers. But hardware is still part of the equation. Ford, Mercedes, General Motors, and Volvo have all been making cars for the better part of a century. They are quite good at it, and yet they still have to issue safety recalls year after year. Cars also have failsafes in place so that if mechanical breakdowns happen, their occupants aren’t in immediate danger. The hardware for autonomous cars will need to be built to these same specifications—what the industry calls automotive grade parts—and so will their software.

“There’s no software designer in the world that’s ever going to be smart enough to anticipate all the potential circumstances this software is going to encounter,” Christopher Hart, the chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, recently told MIT Technology Review. Hart also argued that even if you can solve all the human errors associated with driving a car, you have’t necessarily removed human error from the entire process. “Even if you eliminate the operator, you’ve still got human error from the people who designed it, people who built it, people who maintain it,” he says.

In short, the hardware and software problems are inextricably linked. Siddhartha Srinivasa, the head of Carnegie Mellon University’s personal robotics lab, says that just because a car can navigate a pre-mapped route on its own doesn’t mean we should expect full, mass-market autonomy anytime soon.

“I think we’re still at the proof-of-concept stage, where we’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s strap on the most expensive possible hardware and see if we can build a self-driving car,’” Srinivasa says. “And I think it’s great that we can, but to take that into an actual $30,000 car that can drive itself, I think we’re a long way away.”