A double black diamond
Uber's Pittsburgh fleet consists of Ford Fusion cars outfitted with 3D cameras, global positioning systems and a technology called lidar that uses lasers to assess the shape and distance of objects, mounted somewhat crudely to the vehicle's roof. The company is also outfitting Volvo SUVs that will be added to the fleet.
The cars do drive themselves, but during Reuters' ride-along, the Uber driver in the front seat took control, according to company protocol, to allow pedestrians to cross the street, maneuver through a construction zone and make a left turn across traffic at an intersection. An Uber engineer sat in the passenger seat, occasionally adjusting the speed of the car, which mostly drove slowly.
While autonomous driving on highways is relatively easy -- Carnegie Mellon researchers built a minivan that in 1995 drove itself across the country and remained in autonomous mode about 98 percent of the time -- city streets, with their traffic, pedestrians, potholes and construction, are a different matter.
"Since the mid-’90s pretty much this entire field has been focused on doing that last step," said Aaron Steinfeld, associate research professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon.
Pittsburgh in particular poses challenges. The city is full of steep and narrow streets, potholes, tunnels and more than 440 bridges. It has snow and ice in the winter, blossoming trees that can hide street signs and traffic signals in the spring, blinding sun in the summer and a slippery ground cover of fallen leaves in the autumn.
"We really feel that Pittsburgh is the double black diamond of driving," said Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber's Advanced Technologies Center.
Pittsburgh also offers Uber a welcoming mayor and city leadership, who have rolled out the red carpet for Uber and a state law that allows for autonomous cars, as long as someone is behind the wheel to take over if needed.
Among the residents, there are mixed responses. On the ride-along, some stared at the autonomous car with mouth-gaping awe; another gave the car the middle finger.
Others, like Robert Armitage, 55 and a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, are excited for his city -- but skeptical of Uber's ambitions.
"I am absolutely skeptical as to whether they can pull it off in the winter, he said. "Pittsburgh is awfully far north for this kind of experiment."