Uber’s self-driving Ford Fusion hybrids are cruising around the streets of Pittsburgh

uber tests self driving cars in pittsburgh dt common streams streamserver
Don’t look know, but if you’re cruising around downtown Pittsburgh, the next Ford you overtake might be a self-driving Uber. On Thursday, the on-demand driving service took the wraps off its autonomous vehicles: modified Ford Fusion hybrids outfitted with myriad sensors that the company began testing near its Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Advanced Technology research center several weeks ago.

Uber’s cars sound impressive. A positioning array — a combination of 22 “cup-sized” cameras and lasers that sit atop the roof — allows the vehicles a sightline of more than 100 meters in every direction. They can brake, accelerate, and steer almost entirely autonomously, and during test drives on Wednesday with Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporters reportedly navigated the winding, hilly streets of Pittsburgh with relative ease.

That said, Pittsburgh’s rainy and snowy weather has “made the city a challenging place” to test the fleet, head of Uber’s Pittsburgh lab John Bares told the Tribune-Review. “We’re looking for instances to make it difficult for the computer to drive,” he said. “We find those and we work on them.” He stressed, though, that vehicles have never been involved in a crash, and the lab was experimenting with special headlights capable of  “shutting off certain beams of light” that might otherwise confuse the cars’ sensors. “To really advance this technology to where it needs to be, to where it is operated safely, you need to have it in these conditions,” said Bares.

The fleet isn’t entirely autonomous. In order to comply with Pennsylvania’s state Department of Transportation laws, an operator capable of assuming control must remain behind the wheel when the car is in motion, and Uber’s cars are designed with that requirement in mind. They can be switched to a “manual” driving mode at any time, and automatically disable self-driving “with a loud beep” when the onboard computer can’t determine a way around an obstacle.

Uber’s self-driving cars are the product of years of research and development. The company began prototyping vehicles “10 to 15 years ago” in the California badlands, and in 2013, founded the core of its Advanced Technology Center by controversially “poaching” 40 of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineer Center’s (NREC) top researchers. NREC deployed an autonomous Cadillac SRX prototype later that year, using it to ferry Pennsylvania state representatives and transport officials, and more recently tested a self-driving vehicle in Washington for “runs around the Capital Hill and the Pentagon.”

Uber’s focus on self-driving cars remains mostly technological for now, but the transportation behemoth is one of several firms that are lobbying lawmakers to formulate guidelines for self-driving technologies. Uber, along with Google, Lyft, and Volvo, formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets in April. So far, only seven states — California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida — and Washington, D.C. have enacted related legislation. Pennsylvania representatives are working to adopt similar laws, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could move to approve a preliminary framework as soon as July.

“We all say we want to drive, but I’ve been thinking about it recently. A lot of times you’re tired, you’re distracted, do you really want to drive?” Bares said. “Can we make our road trip safe? Can we let people be productive in their cars … but be safer while they do it? So that’s the thing that tugs me, and I think we can do that over time.”

Uber’s accelerating development of its autonomous vehicles comes as it faces increased resistance from its legion of drivers. Protests in New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, New Delhi, and elsewhere have disrupted the company’s services, and Uber has encountered lawsuits over its categorization of drivers as benefit-free “contractors” rather than salaried employees. In cities like Austin, Texas, its drivers have been subject to stringent background checks. And in developing nations, the company is under pressure to reduce fares — earlier this month, Apple, a company with reported self-driving car ambitions of its own, invested $1 billion in rival service Didi Chuxing. (Uber itself is available in more than 440 cities across six continents, and privately valued at more than $62 billion.)

Uber is not putting all of its eggs in one basket. The company reportedly approached electric car company Tesla about its self-driving car tech, and last year placed an order for 100,000 autonomous Mercedes S-Class sedans.

“Are we going to be a part of the future? Or are we going to resist the future, like that taxi industry before us?” said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick at the Wall Street Journal’s WSJDLive conference in October of last year. “For us, we’re a tech company, so we’ve said, let’s be a part of that. It’s a super exciting place to be.”


Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Emerging Tech

Robot janitors will soon be scrubbing the floors at your local Walmart

Hundreds of robot janitors will soon be working at Walmart stores across the U.S. The company says the autonomous floor scrubbers will free its human staff from monotonous tasks so they can spend more time helping customers.

Uber is about to restart self-driving car tests but on a reduced scale

Uber is reported to be on the verge of restarting its autonomous-car test program. The company halted it in March 2018 following a fatal accident involving one of its vehicles, but its cars could be back on the road within weeks.

World’s fastest electric race car to display at Petersen Museum

The Volkswagen I.D. R Pikes Peak race car smashed the all-time record at the hill climb for which it was named. The all-electric VW record-holder will be on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles until February 1, 2019.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

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 sure is fun to gawk!

This freewheeling Army truck-turned-tiny home is a labor of love

Most tiny homes are models of efficiency but one British metal worker has redefined the idea, converting an old Army truck into a mobile tiny home that comes with a bed, a sofa, a shower, and a beer garden.
Product Review

The 2019 Porsche Macan S is a luxurious and quick SUV, but it's no road tripper

The roster of models challenging the Porsche Macan grows annually. The German firm updated its smallest, most affordable SUV with a new engine, more tech features, and subtle design tweaks to keep it looking fresh.

Take a friend stargazing at 202 mph in the 2019 McLaren 720S Spider

McLaren has introduced the 2019 720S Spider. As its name implies, it's a convertible variant of the 720S coupe. The company promises the Spider retains the coupe's dynamism and agility thanks in part to the widespread use of carbon fiber.

Gateway’s born-again Ford Bronco boasts classic style, 2018 muscle car power

Illinois-based Gateway Bronco has received a license from Ford to make brand-new examples of the first-generation Bronco. Every build starts with a Ford VIN and a donor vehicle, but Gateway upgrades every part of the car.

Bloodhound’s plan to build a 1,000-mph car has run out of gas

The Bloodhound supersonic car (SSC) project has officially shut down. The upside is you can now buy a 135,000-horsepower car powered by a jet engine and a cluster of rockets for $319,000.

2019 Ford Ranger saves fuel without sacrificing towing capacity

The 2019 Ford Ranger marks Ford's long-awaited return to the midsize truck segment, which has seen a resurgence lately. But will being late to the party make Ford's job more difficult?

Pininfarina Battista is a 1,900-horsepower, 250-mph electric supercar

The Pininfarina Battista will be the first production car from famed Italian design firm Pininfarina. Named after company founder Battista Pininfarina, it has a claimed 1,900 horsepower and a $2.5 million price tag.

Tesla could show the electric pickup Elon Musk is dying to build in 2019

Tesla has started designing its long-promised pickup truck. The yet-unnamed model will come with dual-motor all-wheel drive and lots of torque, plus it will be able to park itself.

Allegro.ai is helping Hyundai mine the artificial intelligence gold rush

In November 2018, Hyundai invested in a startup named Allegro.ai. We talked to the company's founder to learn more about what that means for consumers in the not-too-distant futures.