Uber’s modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicle.

To say that Pittsburgh ain’t what it used to be is, in many ways, a good thing. Writer Peter High reminds us of that in the opening of his recent Forbes article that looks into how tech giant Uber selected Pittsburgh (of all places, right??) to be home to their driverless car initiative.

High begins in much the same way Sophia from Golden Girls typically does: Picture it. Pittsburgh, 1979. “The Steelers won the Super Bowl, the Pirates won the World Series, and the city nearly went bankrupt,” High writes. “Given the passage of time, it is easy to forget how deeply depressed the city was. Unemployment was nearly at 20 percent.”


But 1979 was also the year Carnegie Mellon University kicked off its robotics program, High points out. “Additionally,” he writes, “a string of forward-thinking city leaders were able to see past the end of Pittsburgh’s dominance as a steel town toward a brighter future as a technology-centric economy.”

Which brings us to today, when nearly everywhere you turn in Pittsburgh you spot a souped up Volvo with a curious spinning contraption on its roof. In Pittsburgh, Uber and its driverless car program have arrived, and apparently, so has the future.

So how did we get here? High tapped Mayor Bill Peduto to get the backstory:

“It was about two years in the making,” Peduto tells High. “The Uber team came to Pittsburgh with the intent to kick the tires to see if our city could become a global center for their autonomous vehicle research and development. There [sic] were not looking for government money or any type of subsidy. They were looking for a partner who was willing to create an urban lab. We had had a couple of decades of experience working with Carnegie Mellon [CMU] on autonomous vehicles in the city and had CMU’s cars already on our streets. It was not a big leap for us to be able to accommodate Uber.”

“Over the course of the past year and a half,” Peduto continues, “Uber has employed over six-hundred employees in the city, and I expect that number to be over a thousand by the end of 2017.”

And the good news for Pittsburgh doesn’t end there.

“We are already rolling out the next phase of the smartest traffic signals in the world,” Peduto says. “Our partnership with Carnegie Mellon over a system called SureTrack allows us to capture information in real time and through a network of traffic signals and change the timing of the green lights and the red lights to increase efficiency by 31 percent. You do not have to add a new turning lane or build another roadway, you can use the existing roadways that you have, and through automation and sensors be able to make the system much more efficient and safe for bicyclists and pedestrians as well.”

Never a dull moment on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Read the full Forbes article and get audio of the interview here.

Ali Trachta

Ali Trachta joyfully returned home to Pittsburgh after a long stint at LA Weekly. Most recently she served as its online editor as well as digital strategist for its parent company, Voice Media Group, which owns seven alt-weekly newspapers. She lives in Stanton Heights with her husband and little boy.