City council eyes safety as Uber’s autonomous cars return to Pittsburgh’s roads after crash

The robot car wasn’t in self-driving mode during the crash, police said.

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

A crash involving a self-driving Uber this morning in Pittsburgh reinforces the need for safety to be part of the public discussion here about autonomous vehicles, two city council members told The Incline.

Uber grounded its fleet of self-driving cars for several hours today following the South Side crash, marking the second time the fleet was taken off the road due to a crash, but the first such crash in Pittsburgh.

The crash

Police responded around 8:15 a.m. to Hot Metal and Sidney streets for a two-vehicle collision between a black Nissan Sentra and a self-driving Uber Volvo XC90, per Sonya Toler, the city’s public safety spokeswoman. Toler said the Nissan Sentra was westbound on Sidney, and the autonomous Volvo was southbound on Hot Metal, nearing the intersection, when the crash happened.

Two Uber employees were in the self-driving car, which was not in autonomous mode, Toler said, adding both vehicles were towed from the scene. No injuries were reported.

Uber said it completed an internal investigation about the incident, which was first reported by TribLive, and the fleet was pulled from the roads until 11 a.m. Uber didn’t provide more details on what that investigation included.

Council member Deborah Gross, who represents the Strip District, where Argo AI and Uber are based, said crashes like this one are something to keep an eye on as technology advances and companies push for there not to be a human in the cars. She stressed that’s important for the public to remember that state law currently requires there to be a person in the driver’s seat of self-driving cars.

“A road in 10 years will not be what it is today,” added Council member Corey O’Connor, saying rules and regulations will change.

Gross and O’Connor, whose district is home to Uber’s test track, spoke to The Incline on Monday afternoon following a post-agenda meeting on automation, where they were the only council members in attendance.

The post-agenda

The 90-minute post-agenda only briefly touched on safety, and today’s crash was not part of the conversation. (O’Connor said he was unaware of it, and Gross said she read a media report about it during the meeting.)

Speaker Gary Fedder, interim CEO of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, suggested lanes designated for self-driving cars as the transition happens, something Gross and O’Connor parroted as a possibility after the meeting. Highways don’t belong to the city, but such lanes could work for the Boulevard of the Allies or Fifth Avenue, O’Connor said.

A bulk of the post-agenda revolved around jobs and what council can do to help all workers impacted by automation. O’Connor said he liked the ideas of local level wage insurance for workers and the educational outreach that the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute is planning to help prepare the future workforce.

“It’s not happening now, but 10 years will be here quicker than we think,” he said.

The best thing for council to do is advocate for workers to prevent a massive disruption in jobs, said speaker Sam Williamson, SEIU Local 32BJ district director. He told council that they need to advocate for making sure workers have the skills they need and multiple options for good jobs.

The concern that machines will take over a large number of jobs isn’t new, said Lee Branstetter, faculty director at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Future of Work. Looking at history, he said, “what lies in our future is probably not an unemployment apocalypse”

Automation will have various levels of impact on different jobs, Fedder said. Adding robots to jobs, such as in manufacturing, helps increase productivity, but humans are still better at manipulation and problem solving.

The challenge comes back to education and preparing people for jobs that don’t exist yet.

“We owe it to our kids to give them the ability to adapt,” Fedder said.