Uber’s Pittburgh robotaxis amuse riders, still struggle with double parked cars

About a month ago, Uber rolled out its fleet of self-driving robo-cabs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You might be wondering why it wasn’t Palo Alto, California or New York City, but the location is far from random. Pittsburgh is also the home of Carnegie Mellon University, which provided much of the brainpower for Uber’s new Advanced Technologies Center. That’s where the autonomous cabs are being developed.

Uber is tight-lipped on specifics, but according to the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Uber now has over 500 employees in the city. A quick look through Uber’s current job openings turns up 64 available positions in Pittsburgh against a total of seven for the rest of the world, and most of those are in Detroit. So it’s safe to say that this is more than an experiment. Uber is going all-in to put self-driving cars on the road as soon as possible.

Not quite driverless

Right now, Uber has a small fleet of autonomous vehicles plying the streets of Pittsburgh. The self-driving Ubers are Ford Fusion Hybrids, and they’re fitted with a special roof-mounted array of cameras, GPS receivers, and a LIDAR (laser radar) system that collectively generate over a million data points every second. The autonomous system is designed to handle acceleration, braking, steering, and point-to-point navigation.

It’s safe to say that this is more than an experiment. Uber is going all-in to put self-driving cars on the road as soon as possible.

For all that, the Uber robo-cabs still have a human being in the driver’s seat. In part, that’s because Pennsylvania law requires a human being to be able to take control of the vehicle, but riders have reported that the self-driving system will drop the car into human control if it gets confused and doesn’t know what to do. For example, riders reported that if the robo-taxi encounters a double-parked car in its lane or a stalled car, it tends to wait for the car ahead to move. When that happens, the human driver can take control and get around the unpredictable obstacle.

Ask the riders

We got ahold of a couple customers who have used the new self-driving Uber. One was Aaron Butler, a lawyer in Pittsburgh and a regular Uber rider.

“It was a little different than what I thought initially,” Butler tells Digital Trends. “I thought it would be like The Magic School Bus, or that I’d go in and it would be like KITT from Knight Rider. But it’s not The Magic School Bus. You have a human driver and he’s driving at least 30 percent of the time.”

The Pittsburgh streets present a set of challenges that are unique, but also representative of what self-driving cars may have to manage in any city.

“Pittsburgh is pretty hilly with small, narrow streets,” Butler explains. “So it’s really tricky for cars to navigate on their own. On a narrow street, it takes a human who knows to ease it over a few inches.”

How it works

For now, getting a ride in a robo-cab is limited to certain established Uber customers, like Michelle Bastable-Maher who is an IT consultant in Pittsburgh and uses Uber frequently. She’s a fan of the new service. “There were two incredibly knowledgeable and personable guys [driving], so I felt completely safe at all times,” she says.

“The fact is, it’ll get you where you need to go, but it’s not going to get you there quickly.”

If you’re one of Uber’s selected riders, you just hail an Uber ride as you normally would, and if you’re hailing between 7:00 AM and 10:00 PM, there’s a chance that the ride will be one of the robo-cabs. If it is, you and a friend can climb in the back and control the ride from an iPad mounted there. You confirm the destination, verify that there are only two of you and that you’re both buckled up, then tell the taxi to go.

Uber’s car will choose its own route and manage normal traffic situations. Speed is controlled by two factors: the speed limit and the flow of traffic.  As a rule, the streets on which the automated Ubers are driving have limits no higher than 35 mph, and the cars are programmed to obey all traffic laws.

“The fact is, it’ll get you where you need to go, but it’s not going to get you there quickly,” Butler says. “It doesn’t have human intuition about how traffic is going to speed up or slow down, and it won’t take a right on red without it being posted.”

If the car needs to drop out of autonomous operation, a chime sounds and the human driver takes over, or the driver can take control simply by taking the wheel or stepping on either of the pedals. When the situation is managed, the driver hits a button and the car takes over driving again.

“When the car arrived [the human drivers] were manually driving. They drove to the end of the road, about 100 yards, and then put the car into driverless mode,” Bastable-Maher reports. “On my first ride, [the human drivers] took back control at one point when we got into the centre of Pittsburgh and there were a lot of pedestrians crossing. The second time I believe it was, apart from the first 100 yards, driverless all the way.”

Learning the Pittsburgh Left

As Uber has been testing the system, a few sensational news stories have appeared alleging a one-way street violation and even an accident. However, it turns out that the one-way incident happened under the control of the human driver, and the accident was human error when another driver rear-ended the Uber.

One outlier that had to be learned is known as a Pittsburgh Left, a courtesy that drivers extend to each other.

Digital Trends asked the Pittsburgh Department of Transportation and the Mayor’s office whether there was any change in traffic incidents since the program started. Both said there was “no information of note.”

Right now, the Uber robo-cabs (and their human babysitters) are limited to certain neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. By restricting the operating area to a known map, Uber is able to make fast iterations on software without accounting for too many outlier cases while they’re perfecting the basics.

One outlier that had to be learned is known as a Pittsburgh Left. This is simply a courtesy that drivers extend to each other, but you won’t find it anywhere in the vehicle code. A Pittsburgh Left applies in a situation where left-turning traffic does not have a left-arrow at an intersection, and is simply the habit of letting the first left-turning car make its turn before the straight-through traffic takes the right-of-way.


Speaking on background, an Uber employee told Digital Trends, “We learn every day from every ride we take, be it about the type of traffic in a specific area or about Pittsburgh Lefts, which the cars know about but do not perform themselves.”

The end game

Uber’s not saying anything about when or where they’ll expand their robo-cab experiment, but they’ve stated the ultimate goal clearly in their marketing materials for the program: “Self-driving cars can help fast forward to a future where no one needs to own a car. When you can reliably push a button and get a ride in minutes, why bother with the hassle of looking for your keys, your directions, your car and a parking space?”

As an Uber customer, Butler agrees. “I think it’s novel and it’s fun, and I think within ten years it could be a standard,” he says. “I was surprised at how safe it was. It’s a lot safer than riding with a human driver. But to be a standard, more cars will have to be self-driving.”

That standard may be a lot closer than you expect.

Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.

Tesla will have ‘autonomous robotaxis’ in 2020, Elon Musk says

Tesla will deploy self-driving cars in a "robotaxi" service in 2020, CEO Elon Musk said at the automaker's Autonomy Investor Day. Musk has promised autonomous Tesla electric cars before, but will he finally deliver this time?

Apple’s interest in self-driving cars reported to be revving up

A new report suggests that Apple is in talks with a number of suppliers to purchase lidar sensors, an essential tool for self-driving cars. The news is once again spiking rumors that Apple might be building vehicles.

Kia’s HabaNiro concept is an autonomous electric car that knows when you’re sad

Debuting at the 2019 New York Auto Show, the Kia HabaNiro concept is supposed to preview the future of the everyday car. That future will include artificial intelligence tech that can read the driver's emotions, according to Kia.

Bored with stock? The best tuner cars are begging to be modified

Modification has been around almost as long as the automobile itself. Here are 25 of the best tuner cars you can find, ranging from American muscle standouts to Japanese drift cars.

21 charged in Chicago carsharing heist; 100+ cars stolen, many still missing

More than 100 Mercedes-Benz vehicles belonging to carsharing service Car2Go were stolen in Chicago. Police are still working to recover all of the cars, which are equipped with GPS, and 21 people have been charged.

The VR goggles you wear to shoot alien ships is helping Magna design car parts

Canadian automotive supplier Magna has started using virtual reality in its research and development department. The technology helps engineers get a better view of what they're working on, whether it's an interior part or a powertrain.

From rugged wagons to hot sports cars, the 2019 NY Auto Show brought it all

From city cars to supercars, anything goes at the New York Auto Show. Automakers from all over the globe traveled to the 2019 show to unveil their newest concept cars and production models.

Toyota leads $1 billion investment in Uber’s self-driving tech division

In a move that has been a long time coming, Uber filed its S-1 documents, which sets the stage for the company to finally go public with an initial public offering. The company could be valued at more than $100 billion.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Samsung Galaxy Fold woes, zombie pigs, and more

Today's topics: Samsung Galaxy Fold, Facebook A.I. voice assistants, YouTube comes to Fire TV, facial recognition on airline flights, the SpaceX DART program, Yale's zombie pigs, and much more!

Electric car buying guide: What you need to know before you buy

EVs are better than they've ever been, but buying your first battery-powered car can be an intimidating experience. Digital Trends has compiled a comprehensive guide that walks you through the process of buying an EV.

Carbuying can be tiring: Here are the best used car websites to make it easier

Shopping for a used car isn't easy, especially when the salesman is looking to make a quick sale. Thankfully, there are plenty of sites aimed at the prospective buyer, whether you're looking for a sedan or a newfangled hybrid.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robots that eat landmines and clean your floors

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!

Café racer-inspired ebike hits 28 mph quickly and quietly with carbon belt drive

Ebike manufacturer Electra launched the Café Moto Go, an advanced ebike. The Café Moto Go's step-over frame was inspired by café racers. The Café Moto Go is a premium performance ebike built to run smoothly and extra quietly.