Behind the scenes at Uber’s self-driving media day in Pittsburgh
|Ali Griswold||Sep 15, 2016|
Toward the start of this month I got a cryptic call from an Uber PR person inviting me to Pittsburgh to “get up close and personal” with the company’s self-driving cars. I’m breaking form on this week’s newsletter to tell you about it.
The media day was held on Monday and Tuesday at the Advanced Technologies Center (ATC), Uber’s home for autonomous vehicle research in the Strip District, a former warehouse neighborhood along the Allegheny River. The facility was big but bleak with its tall ceilings, industrial work benches and lighting, and sterilely white tile floors. Four Uber ATC executives gave short, tightly scripted speeches—the only part of the three-hour event that was “on the record”—led by a visibly rattled Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of driverless trucking company Otto and VP of engineering at Uber since it acquired his startup in August. After that we were ushered through a nondescript door in the back and into a fleet of self-driving cars.
I was there with my coworker Mike Murphy, a tech reporter at Quartz, and we slid into the backseat of a white Ford Fusion. Up front were two engineers whose jobs were to monitor the car’s behaviors and assume control of the wheel in case anything went wrong. The man driving the car wore dark sunglasses and a black Under Armour hat. They answered our questions and walked us through the car’s basic functions but remained impassive throughout the trip. It felt a little like riding with the Secret Service.
Our self-driving journey began by edging out of Uber’s parking lot. The car was in control but we were going so slowly that it seemed more like a novelty ride at an amusement park than anything else. Then we turned onto the main road. It is an odd experience to be in an autonomous car that suddenly realizes it needs to be going 35 mph and is programmed to get there with great efficiency. We surged forward, then settled exactly at the speed limit, similar to how an inexperienced teenager might accelerate into cruise control on the highway.
I wish I had a great anecdote to share about the ride, like how the car wouldn’t startor sat uncomfortably long at a stop sign. But I don’t. Our trip was mostly smooth. There were other reminders that we were being guided by a robot rather than a human: when the car hung unsettlingly close to the curb on a road where Uber’s engineers had determined oncoming trucks were more likely to swerve out of their lane; when it slowed while approaching a stoplight and then sped through the intersection after registering the signal was green. On two occasions the car emitted a gentle ding, its way of alerting the engineer that it had switched out of self-driving mode and required human control. Other than that we proceeded uneventfully—even after Mike swapped seats with one of Uber’s engineers to experience “driving” the car himself.
The Pittsburgh event was Uber’s debutante ball, and the company had flown in people from around the US to ensure that it went smoothly. Jill Hazelbaker was there, the VP of comms who joined Uber along with policy chief Rachel Whetstone last year. So were communications staffers from San Francisco, Chicago, New York. Uber has raced to make self-driving technologies available to the general public before any of its tech or automaker competitors. Uber put four self-driving taxis into service for about 1,000 Pittsburgh users yesterday and plans to add 100 Volvo SUVs to the fleet by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Google is aiming to have its driverless cars ready by 2020, BMW and Ford by 2021. Even Volvo’s most ambitious timeline doesn’t put its autonomous vehicles on the streets of Sweden until 2017.
Uber has found a willing partner for its self-driving efforts 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,” Bill Peduto, the city’s mayor, told me. Whether Pittsburgh is ready for self-driving Ubers is another matter. 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. Both Uber and Pittsburgh also seem unprepared to fully discuss potential consequences of the experiment, instead adopting a rather Machiavellian attitude about it. Uber repeats often that an estimated 1.3 million people die in traffic accidents every year and self-driving cars could save thousands of lives. At the same time, the company doesn’t have any sort of ethics board and refuses to say who would be held liable were a self-driving car involved in an accident.
Peduto told me he would investigate a self-driving Uber accident—even one involving a death—like any other vehicular incident. He also pointed to the life-saving potential of driverless technology. “In the long term, the goal will be to at least half those 1.3 million people who die every year,” he told me, citing the same number used by Uber. “If you’re starting to be able to do that, then you can save over 600,000 lives a year. Will it be worth the trial and error that is inevitable and will happen in cities that adopt it?” Peduto paused. “That’s I think more of an ethical-moral-cultural question than it is a strict government question.”
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