Uber could soon resume testing its self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh, eight months after one of its autonomous vehicles killed a pedestrian in Arizona. Earlier this month, the company announced it had filed…
Uber could soon resume testing its self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh, eight months after one of its autonomous vehicles killed a pedestrian in Arizona.
Earlier this month, the company announced it had filed an application to resume self-driving car testing with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and that it had pledged to take various safety measures to restore faith in its vehicles. Uber suspended its self-driving vehicle testing in all cities following the March crash, but the company has been testing the cars in manual mode with drivers.
“Our goal is to really work to regain that trust and to work to help move the entire industry forward,” Noah Zych, Uber’s head of system safety for self-driving cars,” told the Associated Press in early November.
But given the perception of Uber among some in Pittsburgh, trust may not come as easy as the company hopes.
Two years ago, Pittsburgh allowed Uber to test self-driving cars on its streets — the first city in the country to let the company do so. But it was more of a handshake deal between Uber and Mayor Bill Peduto than a formal arrangement — one that didn’t reap for the city the benefits many expected.
The experience in Pittsburgh sheds light on how public and private interests can diverge when it comes to transportation innovation. While cities may offer themselves up as a testing ground in hopes of gaining some benefit, private companies are usually more focused on profit than public good — and a city’s investment doesn’t always pay dividends.
In 2016, financial reports seemed to indicate that self-driving cars were going to transform the transportation industry and could become a $7 trillion business. By offering Uber — the presumed industry leader at that time — access to its streets and varied topography and university research facilities, Pittsburgh was poised to become the research center for a game-changing industry.
But two years later, Google, Ford and General Motors Co. have all moved ahead of Uber in this research. While Pittsburgh was at the forefront of self-driving car testing a few years ago, more cities have entered the game now: Ford has launched pilots in Pittsburgh, but also in Washington, D.C., Detroit and Miami. Google spinoff Waymo is in 15 Californian cities, six Arizona cities as well as Austin and Atlanta. Cruise, the self-driving car arm of GM, is in San Francisco. And Uber has moved much of its self-driving car research to Toronto, taking about 40 researchers and scientists formerly with Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department across the border along with it.
Some think that Pittsburgh bet on the wrong horse in this market, even though they seem to have picked the right industry.
In 2016, when the city applied for a $50 million grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge for future-minded transportation infrastructure research, officials asked Uber to pitch in $25 million of funding. Other requests included guaranteeing jobs where the company was planning a test track for its self-driving cars, offering free rides in autonomous vehicles and driving low income elderly Pittsburghers to doctors appointments in the regular, people-driven Ubers. Uber declined, saying it was too high of an investment. Columbus, Ohio won the grant.
“When it came to what Uber and what (CEO) Travis Kalanick wanted, Pittsburgh delivered,” Peduto told the New York Times in May 2017. “But when it came to our vision of how this industry could enhance people, planet and place, that message fell on deaf ears.”
Frustration with the company extended beyond the mayor. Rev. John Welch, dean of students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of business ethics at the University of Pittsburgh, believes the city should have required Uber to provide free service to poorer communities in the city before it gave Uber permission to use the city streets in the first place.
“(Companies like) Amazon and Uber should not be going into cities and asking the cities ‘What can you do for me?'” he says. “They should be starting the conversation with ‘What we can do for you?'”
Representatives from Uber declined to comment on the company’s relationship with Pittsburgh or other cities for this article, though they did offer a statement reiterating the company’s commitment to “building the safest self-driving technology out there” and making “this self-driving future a reality.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has just begun issuing permission to re-start testing of self-driving vehicles, after issuing guidance on the testing in July. According to the guidance, which is voluntary, companies are expected to report the approximate number of miles they travel, the counties they’ve tested in, and the number of new jobs added due to testing, among other data. Uber plans to follow the guidance, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In the meantime, other self-driving car companies continue to operate in Pittsburgh. Both autonomous car startup Aurora and Ford’s Argo AI are testing self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, and Uber’s ride-sharing competitor Lyft is eying a 70,000-square-foot space in the city for it’s autonomous partner, Aptiv.
“We know that we are offering the use of our streets, a public right of way, for the research these companies can do and ultimately profit from,” Peduto says to U.S. News. “The idea of autonomous vehicles can be a game changer for society, but right now, a lot of the research is a one-way street for the private market, and that street is not able to be used by the city governments much.”