Roll Out the Concrete Carpet

Pittsburghers are used to a certain amount of national spotlight because of our exceptional sports teams and uncanny ability to be represented nearly everywhere you travel. This month, however, the clamor around the Burgh may be a bit more heightened than usual.

Uber will be unleashing the first ever fleet of self-driving cars downtown by the end of August. For those of you unfamiliar with Uber, they have completely revolutionized the industry of taxi service since 2009. You request a ride on your smartphone by tapping a button on their app and the driver finds you via GPS and takes you where you need to go. You hook up a credit card to the app and pay them remotely. It’s so simple it’s ridiculous. Uber had about 160,000 drivers† last February, which is sure to have almost doubled by now, and operates in 506 cities globally††.

My first thought when I heard this news was why on earth would they pick Pittsburgh. Anyone who has tried using GPS downtown has seen more than a couple devices simply give up on getting you to your destination or been directed to make a left into the Mon once or twice. The main reason Uber is introducing its first automated fleet here is because of their close relationship with CMU, namely John Bares who ran CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years and founded Carnegie Robotics with which Uber has partnered.

The cars they’re using for the first rollout are Volvo XC90’s with a sensory array mounted on the top. For now, the cars will still have drivers to take over if needed and for situations like construction and bridges which are hard to navigate autonomously. The end goal though is to eventually provide a totally automated trip back home from the bar, or to the show at the Benedum or anywhere else you want to go. 

Uber is still a privately owned company and their CEO has stated they’ll stay that way for as long as possible. They’re not the only ones developing driverless car technology but they are the first in the world to fully release it for use transporting the public, beating Google and Ford on their promises of robo-cars. I think we all expected this to happen at some point, but to have this technology ready right now is much sooner than most anticipated. Pittsburghers will get to see firsthand how the integration of self-driving cars into the general public works out and add another accolade to their belts as our town becomes the Lexington of a transportation revolution that will change the world.

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