Uber’s modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicle.

We’ve been hearing a great deal about them and now Uber’s driverless cars will be spotted on local streets by summer’s end. Bloomberg reported today that Uber’s first self-driving fleet will arrive in Pittsburgh this month.

“Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market,” reports Bloomberg Businessweek.

In their feature story detailing the huge announcement, writers Max Chafkin and Eric Newcomer talk with Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, as well as with John Bares, who ran CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years before founding Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes components for self-driving industrial robots used in mining, farming and the military.

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber. Photograph: Britta Pedersen/Picture-Alliance/DPA via AP.
Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber. Photograph: Britta Pedersen/Picture-Alliance/DPA via AP.

The article highlights Uber’s critical development work with CMU’s robotics department, as well as the company’s latest developments, expansion, safety tests, and applications for the cutting-edge technology—in terms of both science and commerce:

According to Bloomberg, Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet (supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being) consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers . . . The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300  million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021.

The article goes on to explain Uber’s ambitious expansion plans:

Volvo is expected to deliver 100 specially modified SUVs to Uber by the end of the year. Courtesy Uber.
Volvo is expected to deliver 100 specially modified SUVs to Uber by the end of the year. Courtesy Uber.

“The Volvo deal isn’t exclusive; Uber plans to partner with other automakers as it races to recruit more engineers. In July the company reached an agreement to buy Otto, a 91-employee driverless truck startup that was founded earlier this year and includes engineers from a number of high-profile tech companies attempting to bring driverless cars to market, including Google, Apple, and Tesla . . . Otto has developed a kit that allows big-rig trucks to steer themselves on highways, in theory freeing up the driver to nap in the back of the cabin. The system is being tested on highways around San Francisco. Aspects of the technology will be incorporated into Uber’s robot livery cabs and will be used to start an Uber-like service for long-haul trucking in the U.S., building on the intracity delivery services, like Uber Eats, that the company already offers.”

Chafkin and Newcomer also discuss both the innovations, and the safety concerns, surrounding self-driving car technology:

“For now, Uber’s test cars travel with safety drivers, as common sense and the law dictate. These professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening.

One major challenge in Pittsburgh? Our city’s hundreds of iconic bridges:

Graphic: Bloomberg Businessweek. Data: Bloomberg.
Graphic: Bloomberg Businessweek. Data: Bloomberg.

“Bridges are hard in part because of the way that Uber’s system works . . . The company has been creating extremely detailed maps that include not just roads and lane markings, but also buildings, potholes, parked cars, fire hydrants, traffic lights, trees, and anything else on Pittsburgh’s streets. As the car moves, it collects data, and then using a large, liquid-cooled computer in the trunk, it compares what it sees with the preexisting maps to identify (and avoid) pedestrians, cyclists, stray dogs, and anything else. Bridges, unlike normal streets, offer few environmental cues—there are no buildings, for instance—making it hard for the car to figure out exactly where it is. Uber cars have Global Positioning System sensors, but those are only accurate within about 10 feet; Uber’s systems strive for accuracy down to the inch.”

The article ends with these words from Kalanick: “If Uber wants to catch up to Google and be the leader in autonomy, we have to have the best minds . . . We have to have all the great minds.”

Read the entire article in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator of Handmade Arcade. Musically, she is in a band called The Garment District and is a founding member of Brooklyn's The Ladybug Transistor.