Three months of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh: A look back

So what’s next?

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Wednesday marks three months since Pittsburghers had a chance to hop in the self-driving Uber cars they’d seen on the streets.

The ride-sharing company launched a pilot program Sept. 14, allowing a select group of riders to hail the cars.

So far, Uber officials have stayed quiet on how many riders have opted in and how the tests are going. But here’s what we know from the past three months:

The rollout

In the two days before the pilot program launched, reporters from across the country came to Pittsburgh for a media extravaganza that included opportunities to “drive” the autonomous vehicle.

Reporters relied on a variety of adjectives to describe how the car drives “like your vision-impaired grandmother” (Thanks, Atlantic!) and the look of the car itself. Wired described it as “an elaborate headdress of spinning lasers and enough cameras to document the Super Bowl.”

Then on Sept. 14, emails started to arrive for Uber’s “most loyal customers.”

For those who opted in, there’s a possibility that a self-driving Uber would respond.

Although no extra liability form was required, there were requirements for riders to take the self-driving cars: There have to be one or two passengers, the car had to be hailed in the “testing zone area,” and the request had to come between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

After that, it depends on chance. 

The fender benders

Then started reports of self-driving cars in fender benders.

Quartz reported a fender bender on the night of Sept. 24 where another car hit the fender of the self-driving car. Uber later told The Incline that its car was not in autonomous mode at the time. Quartz also noted that a self-driving Ford Fusion (which Uber was using in the pilot program) was spotted going the wrong way on a one-way street in Oakland on Sept. 26.

Then on Oct. 18, another possible fender bender happened Downtown, and Uber confirmed it was looking into it.

Uber officials have limited the information they release about incidents with the self-driving cars and other cars on Pittsburgh streets.

During a National League of Cities conference in November, David Plouffe, Uber Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy, said the company is thinking about a way to share information about fender benders with the public, but no plans are confirmed yet.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who was on the same panel as Plouffe, stressed that taking risks was needed to evolve technology, and the city is working with the feds and state on safety regulations.

The Volvo fleet

During the rollout of the pilot program, Uber officials announced that it would be adding 100 self-driving Ubers to the streets by the end of 2016.

And in late October, they were spotted on the streets. 


So what’s next?

Well, for one thing — snow. Employees at Uber’s Advanced Technology Center said they are curious to see how the cars will do in snow and winter weather, the Tribune-Review reported.

Plus, the state is continuing to work on policies for testing and developing self-driving cars throughout the state. A task force released policy recommendations last week, and an online public forum is scheduled for 7 to 8 p.m. tonight. You can join via PennDOT’s automated vehicle testing page by clicking on the webinar link at the time of the meeting.