Uber’s experiment with autonomous vehicles is proceeding with the blessing of city officials, who have pretty much just stayed out of the way.
PITTSBURGH — Any day now, Uber will introduce a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, making this former steel town the first U.S. city to let passengers hail autonomous vehicles.
So what has the city of 306,000 done to prepare for Uber’s test? The answer: not much.
There have been no public-service announcements or demonstrations of the technology. Except for the mayor and one police official, no other top city leader has seen a self-driving Uber vehicle operate up close. Fire and emergency services don’t know where the Uber cars will travel.
It is this hands-off approach that has made Pittsburgh ideal grounds for one of Silicon Valley’s boldest experiments — and it has ignited criticism that the city is giving away the keys to Uber, which is testing a nascent technology and has a reputation for running roughshod over regulators and municipalities.
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“It’s not our role to throw up regulations or limit companies like Uber,” said Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor, who said Uber planned to use about 100 modified Volvo sport-utility vehicles for the passenger trials. The vehicles will also have a human monitor behind the wheel. “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.”
The mayor’s mantra highlights what it takes these days as cities seek to shed their Rust Belt pasts and transform themselves into technology hubs: Give the tech companies lots of free rein. The approach, described as greenlight governing, is one Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania have nurtured in the past few years.
When Uber wanted to expand its research on autonomous vehicles, Pittsburgh helped the company lease a large plot near the city’s riverfront for a testing track. When state regulators tried to ban ride-hailing services in 2014, Pittsburgh’s mayor and the state’s governor helped bat those hurdles down. Otherwise, Pittsburgh’s politicians stayed out of the way.
The approach has many benefits, allowing Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania to position themselves at the forefront of a driverless-vehicle movement that has swept up tech companies, including automakers, Google and Baidu of China. It has brought tech entrepreneurs to Pittsburgh and attracted hundreds of scientists and engineers to new research centers opened in the city in the past decade by Apple, Google, Intel and Uber.
But it also has invited criticism from those who say Pittsburgh is giving too much power to tech companies, all for a sheen of innovation. With Uber’s self-driving vehicles, some residents are on edge and complain they have been involuntarily thrust into an experiment with potential safety risks.
“I feel like we were pushed into being part of this by the city,” said Montana Michniak, a recent college graduate who works at a cafe in the city’s South Side neighborhood.
How Pittsburgh handles the unveiling of Uber’s self-driving fleet is being closely watched by other tech and auto companies that are doing their own driverless experiments in places such as California and Michigan. Depressed cities nationwide are watching to see if the Pittsburgh story can be a blueprint for their own transitions into tech hubs.
“This is the first mayor in Pittsburgh to really get it, and that’s a big reason why the city has become the best case of Rust Belt revival,” said Richard Florida, a professor of urban studies at the University of Toronto, who previously taught at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He said he was “frankly surprised at how long a leash” Uber got.
Peduto, the mayor, said Uber did not have too much power in Pittsburgh and the city would be safe because there would be a human monitor in the Uber test cars. The mayor also has his eye on a bigger safety goal.
“There is no technology that is fail-proof, and there is no tech that can guarantee there won’t be accidents, but right now there are 3,287 people who die in automobile-related accidents around the world each day, and there has to be a better way,” he said.
In a statement, Uber said of Pittsburgh: “Our work would not be possible without the support we’ve received from city leaders.”
Carnegie Mellon talent
Uber arrived in Pittsburgh in early 2015, drawn by the engineering talent at Carnegie Mellon. The university started a robotics department 30 years ago, when driverless cars seemed like a fantasy, but robotics has since proved crucial for the systems that let vehicles navigate streets on their own.
By this decade, the university’s expertise in computer science had attracted not only Uber but also General Motors, Google and Intel, some of which embedded at Carnegie Mellon. Google and Uber later opened research centers nearby, hiring dozens of Carnegie Mellon professors and graduate students.
Today, Uber has 500 employees at a center in Pittsburgh’s industrial Strip District working on autonomous vehicles, according to Peduto. Uber will have 1,000 employees at the site, known as the Advanced Technology Center, within a few years and plans to increase investments in the area to $1 billion from hundreds of millions of dollars in a decade, he said.
For driverless-car tests, Pennsylvania also held a legal advantage. Specifically, the state’s transportation rules did not explicitly ban driverless cars, as long as someone was behind the wheel to take over if needed.
Officials from Pennsylvania’s transportation agency said they interpreted that silence on driverless technology as a green light. Some state officials said they also believed driverless cars could be safer than those steered by drivers, helping avoid driver-related deaths.
“We’d be committing governmental malpractice if we didn’t pursue this technology,” said Roger Cohen, policy director of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
“A benefit for society”
In Pittsburgh, Peduto fostered a close relationship with Uber. In his first meeting in early 2015 with Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, Kalanick said he had noticed efforts by Peduto and other officials to fight the state public-utilities commission’s proposed ban on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft in 2014. Kalanick also laid out a plan for Uber’s driverless cars.
“Travis’ vision was to build out the autonomous-vehicles industry in 10 years,” Peduto said. “We shared a vision to do it in a way that would be a benefit for society.”
Weeks later, in a meeting with President Obama at a conference for the National League of Cities, Peduto urged Obama to support autonomous vehicles and declared Pittsburgh’s intention to be a testing ground.
Since then, Pittsburgh has showed its friendliness to Uber’s efforts. Last year, it also worked with the city’s Police Department on plans to install a ride-hailing kiosk in the lively South Side district, for the use of people who had been drinking and would prefer not to drive home. Pittsburgh International Airport last year also designated waiting areas for Uber and Lyft passengers.
Yet Uber has mostly gone ahead with its self-driving-car plans in Pittsburgh alone. Driverless cars with Uber’s logo have cruised around town for months, in part to get the public used to seeing them. With cameras and GPS units mounted on the roofs, the vehicles collect mapping data on plants and trees, the conditions of sidewalks, and traffic markings for nearly every street.
“There’s really not been a whole lot of collaboration on the actual testing,” said Scott Schuster, Pittsburgh’s assistant chief of police, who rode in one of the Uber vehicles last June and signed a nondisclosure agreement to do so.
Last month, Uber officially announced the self-driving fleet would go into action in Pittsburgh. Peduto, who had been informed a few days earlier by Uber, sent a congratulatory text to Kalanick. Uber’s chief was in Pittsburgh at the time and invited the mayor to be the city’s first driverless-car passenger.
After the 2-mile ride home, Peduto posted on Twitter that he ended that day as the world’s first mayor chauffeured by an autonomous Uber car.
“I feel fortunate that I have the ear of a CEO of one of the biggest privately held companies,” he said.