Uber’s modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicle.

In the weeks since Uber announced plans to officially test their first fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, traffic has taken on a more high-tech look. Now, whether you’re bar crawling in the South Side, strolling down Butler Street in Lawrenceville, or waiting at a crosswalk Downtown, you’re sure to spot one of the company’s 100 modified Volvo SUVs sporting its distinctive rooftop gear. And city residents aren’t the only ones noting the sudden change.

The New York Times reporter Cecilia Kang wrote a comprehensive article about the benefits and challenges related to Pittsburgh being “the world’s first city to let passengers hail autonomous vehicles.” Since August, Uber has conducted passenger trials with the vehicles, each one with a human monitor behind the wheel. A recent article in Bloomberg said Uber and its partner, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), plan to spend $300 million to develop fully autonomous, road-ready cars by 2021.

“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 like California and Michigan (although Apple is said to have laid off dozens of employees in its self-driving car project and to be rethinking its strategy). Depressed cities around the nation are watching to see if the Pittsburgh story can be a blueprint for their own transitions into tech hubs,” writes Kang.

The article lays out how Pittsburgh’s “hands-off approach” to dealing with large-scale experiments like this could put the city “at the forefront of a driverless-vehicle movement that has swept up tech companies including automakers, Google and Baidu of China.” Kang adds that the city’s accommodating nature “has brought tech entrepreneurs to Pittsburgh and attracted hundreds of scientists and engineers to new research centers opened in the city in the last decade by Apple, Google, Intel and Uber.”

It could also bring more jobs to the area. Right now, Uber has 500 employees working on autonomous vehicles at its Strip District-based facility, the Advanced Technology Center. According to the article, that number could grow to 1,000 employees over the next few years.

Kang also focuses on whether or not people are ready for their home turf to become a testing ground for the new technology, especially since, as she points out, “There have been no public service announcements or demonstrations of the technology.”

That last statement, however, isn’t necessarily true. CMU, whose robotics engineers have been working on the autonomous Uber vehicles, has developed and promoted self-driving technology since the 1980s. And their efforts have included public demonstrations—in 2013, they transported state Rep. Bill Shuster of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from Cranberry Township to the Pittsburgh International Airport in an autonomous-converted Cadillac SRX.

The article later states that, “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.”

Even so, Kang points out that there are concerns surrounding public safety. “Some residents are on edge about Uber’s self-driving vehicles and complain that they have been thrust into an experiment with potential safety risks.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has worked closely with Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick since the company first took root here in early 2015. Kang quotes Peduto as saying, “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.”

To help put fears to rest, the article says Peduto made himself a test subject when he posted on Twitter about his own two-mile ride home in an autonomous vehicle.

Read the entire article in The New York Times.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...