Six months of self-driving car rides in Pittsburgh: A look back

Have YOU been in a self-driving car?

Self-driving Uber rides are now all Volvos.

Self-driving Uber rides are now all Volvos.

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

Six months ago today, a select group of Pittsburghers got the golden tickets that said they could be picked up by a self-driving Uber when they ask the app for a ride.

The self-driving cars were already a common sight on Pittsburgh streets, but it’s only in the last half year that we’ve been able to ride in the futuristic cars. In that time, there have been discussions about safety and potential new rules for testing, tense times for Uber (including a harsh text from Mayor Bill Peduto) and an addition to the self-driving vehicle development game in town. Here’s a recap:

Hail a ride

When the pilot program started, Uber users had to be in the testing zone — parts of the Strip District, as well as Downtown and parts of the surrounding area — between 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for the chance to be picked up by a self-driving car. The program also started with several thousand of Uber’s “most loyal customers” who could opt in.

Since then, the pilot has expanded. The company has confirmed there are no more opt in emails and any Uber user could be picked up by the self-driving cars (but also has the option to say no).

Pick-up and drop-off zones have grown to nine neighborhoods, Uber spokesman Craig Ewer said. Those neighborhoods are: Bloomfield, Downtown, Garfield, Lawrenceville, North Shore, Point Breeze, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Strip District. Ewer said the cars run from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m.

It’s not the same fleet of cars that made national news for the launch either. Ewer said riders will be picked up in Volvos, and the original Ford Fusion fleet is “primarily for mapping development” to collect mapping data.

What’s next: With a mild winter so far, the question of how well self-driving cars do in the snow remains. Back in December, Tribune-Review reported that employees at Uber’s Advanced Technology Center said they were curious to see how the cars will do in snow and winter weather. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Making new rules

Currently, just one state law applies to testing self-driving cars: There must be a licensed driver in the driver’s seat, but that doesn’t mean they have to be touching the steering wheel.

In December, the state’s Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force of industry, academic and government representatives gave PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards their policy recommendations for testing self-driving cars. Since then, there’s been a webinar and public comment period, as the state transportation department stresses that safety is key.

The policies can’t move forward without new legislation. On Feb. 24, a bill was introduced that builds on a previous bill and creates rules for testing. A joint public hearing between the state House transportation committee and the state Senate transportation committee is scheduled for a week from today.

In January, Pittsburgh was also selected as a federal proving ground for self-driving vehicles. Proving grounds will work together “to encourage testing and information sharing,” around this new technology, according to a news release.

What’s next: Changes. Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the state Senate Transportation Committee said he expects edits to the proposed bill after the joint committee meeting.

(Not great) Uber press

In late January, protesters, including in Pittsburgh, took to airports across the country following President Donald Trump’s executive order regarding immigration and travel from seven predominately Muslim countries.

Uber came under fire, prompting #DeleteUber, when the company tweeted about turning off surge pricing — aka lowering their fares —around the time of a New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike as a sign of support for immigrants. Uber repeatedly stressed that it supports immigrants and that the tweet wasn’t meant to break the strike.

But that, along with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to be on an advisory council for Trump, prompted Peduto to text Kalanick to say he was disappointed. Kalanick later stepped down from the council. Peduto told The Incline that he thought Kalanick’s decision was “necessary,” but that he was still disappointed in the ride-sharing company and said he had similar complaints as those who organized a Pittsburgh protest against the company.

Before that, Uber launched a self-driving vehicle pilot in San Francisco, but it was short lived. The company then quietly launched a pilot in Tempe, Ariz.

Even more recently, the company has come under fire in national news for sexual assault allegations, the use of “Greyball” to go around officials and alleged trade secret theft.

What’s next: Peduto said he’s hoping for more of a back-and-forth partnership with Uber, so be on the lookout to see if there are (or aren’t) more city and Uber pairings.

A little (more) competition

Although Uber is the only company offering rides to Pittsburghers, it isn’t the only self-driving game in town.

In February, Ford announced a $1 billion investment in Pittsburgh startup Argo AI, headed by CEO Bryan Salesky and COO Peter Rander, who both previously worked at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center and led self-driving vehicle work at Google and Uber, respectively. The company has since announced a Strip District headquarters.

That means Pittsburgh is up to four companies doing research and development on self-driving cars: Carnegie Mellon University, Ford/Argo AI, Uber and Delphi, whose cars you might not even know you’re driving next to.

Mayor Bill Peduto made it clear in an interview with The Incline that’s the way he likes it — having multiple companies doing research, development and manufacturing here. “That’s always been the goal.”

What’s next: More jobs. Peduto’s said he’s expecting hundreds of jobs from the new Argo AI and Ford partnership. Uber and Delphi are hiring, too.

Data releases

Although Uber has been tight-lipped about some data, such as fender benders — something the company is working internally to find a way to release — the company has released several data sets.

Uber provided data to The Incline about the top destinations if a ride starts at three of Pittsburgh’s college campuses (CMU, Pitt and Duquesne). And the company also provided the top Valentine’s Day destinations from 2016 and a six-part restaurant guide created using data from the destination of Uber rides and the time of day.

The company also announced Uber Movement, aimed to help urban planners and local leaders with infrastructure and transportation planning. The website has still yet to launch to the public.

Peduto previously told The Incline that he is hopeful more Uber data will be public in 2017 and become part of the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, so it’s public to everyone, not just the city.

What’s next: The public launch of Uber Movement is coming soon and although the data is anonymous, it will be a glimpse into traffic flow and when and where people are using ride-sharing in Pittsburgh.