Self-Driving in Pittsburgh

- - Adam Kidan

Self-Driving in Pittsburgh by Adam KidanSince Google started work on self-driving cars, other companies have slowly but surely been sticking their toes into the field.  The concept of “self-driving cars” feels like science fiction, like something you’d see on an episode of the Jetsons, but its day could be upon us.  This past Wednesday, Uber confirmed that it’s been testing a fleet of self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh.  Previously, they had said little about developing autonomous vehicles since opening the Advanced Technology Center 15 months earlier in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.  Uber cars have been seen on the roads of Pittsburgh for about a year now, mapping the city.  A few weeks ago, self-driving car tests runs started, and there have so far not been any crashes involving the cars.  Uber’s “Fusions” are outfitted with cameras, lasers and sensors that help them navigate the notoriously tricky streets of Pittsburgh.

John Bares, the head of Uber’s Pittsburgh office, came to Pittsburgh 35 years ago to study engineering at Carnegie Mellon.  He’s been building robots since 1982, headed CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years and was asked by Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick to help develop self-driving cars in Pittsburgh about a year and a half ago.  Bares has said that the narrow and hilly streets, haphazard parking, hazardous weather conditions and aging infrastructure make Pittsburgh the perfect place to test Uber’s self-driving cars; if these can handle Pittsburgh, they can handle anywhere!  The car will accelerate, brake, steer and perform other basic functions on its own.  If its sensors detect a car swerving into its lane or encounters something it doesn’t recognize/can’t negotiate, the car will switch out of self-driving mode with a loud “beep” and allow the driver to take control of the car.  The car’s sensors have detected potholes, parked cars sticking out into traffic, jaywalkers, bicyclists and geese.

Back in April, Uber, Ford, Google, Lyft and Volvo formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets to push for self-driving cars.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that it could have self-driving car guidelines ready by July, and California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida and DC have all enacted autonomous vehicle legislation.  In Pennsylvania, lawmakers and Department of Transportation officials are working on similar laws.

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Adam Kidan