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We rode in a driverless Uber and didn’t die

As it picked up speed, it began making stops more clean and turns more perfectly timed than a human could ever attempt.

by Noah Kulwin
Sep 14 2016, 5:05pm

L'autore al volante della Ford Fusion usata da Uber come veicolo senza guida.

When I shuffled into a self-driving Uber earlier this week, the first thing I noticed is that it was technically not self-driving; there was a test "vehicle operator" sitting in the driver's seat, and someone in the passenger seat.

But then the car started moving. And as it picked up speed, it began making stops more clean and turns more perfectly timed than a human could ever attempt. The guy in the driver's seat had his hands at 9 and 3 o'clock, gently hovering above the wheel. At first, it was a little scary, and it was hard to ignore the faint possibility of the car veering off one of Pittsburgh's many bridges into a river.

After a few minutes however, it got comfortable. When a pedestrian unexpectedly ran across the road to open a car door — a road "anomaly" so perfect that I wondered if Uber planned it ahead of time — the car stopped well ahead of time. I didn't die, and neither did the guy on the street.

Eventually we got to our destination, and I moved from the backseat into the driver's seat for the trip back to Uber's facility. Behind the wheel, after the initial shock of a robot taking control of the car, I was mainly focused on resisting the urge to check my phone. Eventually, without really thinking about it, I gave in to the urge. My two chaperones from Uber didn't seem to mind too much.

Though Uber is a tech company, its biggest innovations to date have been figuring out the so-called "gig economy" and building a formidable political machine to beat back regulators and the taxi industry.

With the self-driving car, however, that changes today.

Uber is officially rolling out its self-driving pilot program on the streets of Pittsburgh, where the company's Advanced Technologies Center is housed. An initial group of "loyal" passengers will be able to hail an UberX ride, and get scooped up in one of Uber's autonomously driven vehicles, up to two at a time.

There will be a "handful" of these cars hitting the roads this week, according to the company; Bloomberg last month reported that Uber plans to have 100 of them picking up customers by the end of the year.

Propelled by these kind of commercial advances in self-driving technology, it has never been a better time to be Uber.

The ride-hailing giant, last valued at over $60 billion, recently signed a truce and an investment deal with Chinese archrival Didi Kuaidi, officially withdrawing from the Chinese market. Google, previously viewed as Silicon Valley's leader in driverless cars, is quickly falling behind, as it has failed to ink necessary deals with carmakers to make its tech commercially viable. Lyft has reportedly been shopping around for a buyer. Apple's secretive electric car unit is said to be restructuring, and has laid off "dozens" of employees.

Last month, Uber revealed that it had paid $680 million for the startup Otto, which was led by a bunch of people who used to work for Google's self-driving car program. Though Otto was focused on self-driving trucks, Uber has quickly integrated the Otto team into its driverless car efforts — Otto founder Anthony Lewandowski, who built Google's first self-driving car, is now leading all of Uber's autonomous driving operations.

Though Uber is generally associated with kneecapping the taxi industry in the last few years, the company's real ambition appears to be supplanting mass transit.

Lewandowski held forth on this topic for a few minutes at a press event in Pittsburgh earlier this week, held at a soon-to-be opened Uber research center.

"I really believe the most important thing computers are going to do in the next 10 years is drive cars," Lewandowski said, arguing that Uber's vehicles will make it "easier to access public transportation."

The cars that Uber's computers will be driving in Pittsburgh are tricked out Ford Fusion sedans. They're equipped with 20 sensors, seven lasers, onboard computers and data storage units, and a laser-radar ("lidar") scanning system atop that car that has 360 degree visibility. I asked the engineer riding with me if I threw a rock at the scanners on top of the car, how much damage it could do. He didn't know.

Though the cars are capable of being driven with almost zero human control, riders in Pittsburgh will have someone in the driver's seat shepherding them around. Inside the car, there's an iPad in the backseat, facing the passengers, that shows what the car's sensors see. You can take selfies with it, and track how fast the sedan is going.

There's a small camera on the sunroof that captures and records footage from inside the car, which the engineer said is "only ever used for internal purposes. An executive later said that this wasn't so much about surveilling riders, but rather to observe how passengers respond to the self-driving technology. An Uber spokesperson added that customers are notified that they're being recorded in a message "they receive before ever taking a ride."

For the "loyal" Uber customers in Pittsburgh who are selected to be part of the pilot group, it's no sure thing that they'll hail one of the self-driving cars. The company says that there are 4,000 drivers in the greater Pittsburgh area, although the autonomous vehicles will only be picking up passengers within a test area inside the city proper.

Those who are selected for the program will be notified in an email that's supposed to go out on Wednesday morning. Self-driving rides will be available between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

An executive for Uber declined to say where and when other self-driving pilot programs might be introduced.

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