Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Have Been On Pittsburgh Streets For A Year Now, So What’s Next?

Sep 20, 2017

It's been just more than a year since Uber's fleet of self-driving Volvos took on Pittsburgh's streets

In that time, the fleet of roughly 200 cars has driven more than 1 million miles and taken 30,000 trips. And Uber officials, at the company's Strip District Pittsburgh headquarters Wednesday, said they're planning to make improvements in transparency and comfort. 

Vehicle operator Paul Galon rests his hands just below the car's steering wheel as it navigates city streets. The cars are programmed so that grabbing the wheel, or engaging the pedals, immediately gives the driver control again.
Credit Sarah Kovash

Currently, the self-driving cars are accompanied by two operators in the front seat, who make sure the car is running as safely as possible. The company wants to scale this back to one operator per vehicle through the remainder of 2017 and into 2018.

The cars are programmed so that grabbing the wheel or engaging the pedals immediately gives the driver control again.

Other updates are for the user experience, such as a screen in the back that shows what the car sensors see. There will also be less hardware in the trunk of the car for passengers to store luggage or large items.

Head of system safety Noah Zych acknowledged that Uber's self-driving cars have been involved in a few accidents in Pittsburgh, including one earlier this week at South Side Works.

"The first thing we do is of course make sure everyone is safe," he said. "Following that, we start an investigation ourselves."

A screen in the back seat of Uber's self-driving cars shows passengers how the car's cameras perceive objects on or along its path. Other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists show up in orange and move in real time.
Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

Zych said the company obtains data from the vehicles involved to see if the software or operators were at fault in the incident. He says so far, there's been no incident where that was the case.

Recently the company said its autonomous cars still have trouble reading cyclist turn signals and can't always see them if they're too close to the car

However, a survey by bike advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh, found that most cyclists and pedestrians like the idea of self-driving cars. They don't block intersections, make Pittsburgh lefts or get road rage. 

“The bar is pretty low for these AVs (Autonomous vehicles) to reach in order to be safer than humans,” said Bike Pittsburgh advocacy director Eric Boerer. 

However, Uber has said that public trust will remain a critical factor as it moves forward with self-driving technology