Uber, the ride-sharing company, has started testing its first four self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh's challenging urban streets. Uber chose Pittsburgh as the location of its testing program. Its Advanced Technology Center is located in that city.
It's not a coincidence that Carnegie–Mellon University, a center for some of the most innovative research on artificial intelligence, machine learning and now autonomous vehicles, is also located in Pittsburgh.
The first four self-driving test vehicles are modified Ford Fusion hybrid cars that include a variety of sensors, such as 20 cameras, seven lasers and three inertial measurement units. The cars are also outfitted with custom computing resources and data storage. The vehicle also has 360-degree radar coverage, according to an Uber press release.
While the Uber cars are touted as being self-driving, each one will have two Uber employees occupying the front seats. One is trained to drive the Uber car, which has specialized controls, and the other is an engineer who will take notes and help solve problems.
Uber is opening up rides only to a specific list of loyal customers. Uber said in a press release that Pittsburgh was the perfect city because of its narrow winding streets and unpredictable weather. It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other U.S. city, and bridges have been challenging for autonomous vehicles in earlier test programs.
While the start of autonomous vehicle operations in daily use is a big step forward, it may not be as big as it initially appears. Uber's Advanced Technology Center has already been mapping the areas of Pittsburgh where the testing will take place. Part of the job of the self-driving cars is to do additional precision mapping.
Each of the Uber test cars includes the equipment to perform laser mapping while the car is driving around. That mapping information is stored in the car and it can be transmitted wirelessly for additional processing.
At this point, even though the cars are operating in the city streets of Pittsburgh, Uber's self-driving cars are very much a research project. You can assume that updates to the software in the cars will be frequent to reflect the knowledge that's being gained with every trip. You can also expect other changes as Uber gets more experience in autonomous vehicle operations.
What those changes might be will depend on how the testing goes. Eventually, the two engineers that go on every ride may be reduced to one and eventually to none. Uber will increase the number of self-driving cars as the researchers gain experience. Somewhere down the road, those 100 Volvo XC-90 cars with the Uber modifications will arrive and start the next phase of testing.
Meanwhile, somewhere along the road, there will be problems.