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Uber is expanding its self-driving research operations in Pittsburgh

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Steel City is getting test roads for autonomous vehicles

Uber announced Tuesday that it is opening a new Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, where its autonomous vehicle research operations are headquartered. The company will renovate an old locomotive roundhouse at the LTV Coke Works site in Hazelwood, along the Monongahela River, which was once a symbol of this Rust Belt city's heyday. The company will build temporary roadways to test self-driving cars as part of its expansion, as well as housing and park space.

This is the first major news to come out of Uber's so-far fairly quiet plans to develop self-driving cars since the ride-hail company began poaching robotics engineers from Carnegie Mellon University in early 2015. Uber snatched 50 researchers from CMU in total, in a move intended to signal the company's seriousness in pursuing self-driving technology alongside heavy hitters like Google, Apple, Ford, and Tesla. But like Apple, Uber has kept its plans relatively close to the vest.

"making transportation even more affordable and convenient for everyone"

In its blog post announcing the expansion, Uber framed the land acquisition as an investment in Pittsburgh, and featured celebratory quotes from the mayor and economic development officials. Nicknamed "Steel City," Pittsburgh was once a boom town of industry and corporate headquarters, but saw many of those jobs eliminated during the deindustrialization of the 1980s. Since then, the city has managed to attract billions of dollars in investment from tech companies, including Apple, Google, Intel, IBM, and Uber.

In addition to the roundhouse and test roads, Uber says it will also create green space along Tecumseh Street. The blog post makes little mention of the progress is it making on self-driving cars, but Uber has made no attempt to dispel any of the talk about its intentions. Last year, an autonomous car with "Uber Advanced Technologies" written on the side was spied tooling around the city. The idea of self-driving Uber cars seamlessly picking up and dropping off passengers is still years away from reality — if indeed it ever comes to fruition — but the possibility has ignited fierce discussion about the future of car ownership, transportation, and road safety.

"Self-driving technology has the potential to drastically cut down on accidents and congestion while making transportation even more affordable and convenient for everyone," said John Bares, director of Uber Advanced Technologies Center, in the blog post. "The adoption of this technology at scale is likely still many years off, but the Steel City is a terrific place to invest now and in the future."