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.
Uber Testing Self-Driving Cars on Challenging Pittsburgh Streets
Even though self-driving cars are intended to be far safer than those driven by mere mortals, there will be accidents. Some of those accidents may result in injuries to the riders of those self-driving cars or anyone in the vehicles they might crash into. It’s possible that someone may be killed in such an accident, much like what happened with the recent fatal accident of a Tesla car operating in its autonomous mode.
A great deal about the future of autonomous vehicles will depend on how those accidents happen and how Uber and other operators handle the aftermath. If the accidents are the result of stupid moves carried out by someone else and the self-driving car does what it can to avoid the accident or minimize the damage, then there should be little problem.
But if accidents happen because the self-driving car runs amok and injures people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong instant, you can expect the hue and cry to set back elf-driving vehicle development for a while. Still, Uber is willing to take the risk that this might happen.
“Real-world testing is critical to our efforts to develop self-driving technology,” Uber said in its background information. “Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve the quality of life for people around the world.”
As important as Uber’s next step is, it would be wrong to assume that this is the opening shot from a self-driving future. The Uber tests are just that–tests. If everything goes well, and if the autonomous cars turn out to be able to handle everything from crazed rush-hour drivers to freak snowfalls, which can wreak havoc in Pittsburgh, which sits at the bottom of a deep valley nearly surrounded by steep hills, then it will be a huge shot in the arm for Uber and for autonomous cars.
But there are so many random factors in driving that you have to assume that not everything will go well. What really matters is what happens when things go wrong? When there’s a sudden snowfall? Will the Uber car be stranded? The answer to that will have a big impact on how Uber’s effort turns out and how fast the self-driving cars gain acceptance across the country.
What also matters is how fast other forms of transportation evolve. For example, self-driving trucks may be farther along in their development than cars and we may be about to see those self-driving trucks on the roads.
At this point there’s little question that self-driving cars are about to arrive, but we don’t know exactly how long it will take before we get there. But I don’t think it’s very far off before we start seeing autonomous cars in everyday use.