Uber has finally released the first official photo of the self-driving cars that it is testing on the streets of Pittsburgh, almost a year to the day since reporters in that city first spotted an earlier prototype. The car, a hybrid Ford Fusion, is collecting mapping data as well as testing its self-driving capabilities, and is equipped with "radars, laser scanners, and high resolution cameras to map details of the environment," Uber says in a blog post. But as it collects data, a trained driver is always behind the wheel.
"While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements," the company says. "Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road — pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers."
Uber also gave a reporter from Pittsburgh's Tribune-Review a ride in the car, the first time a member of the media has been allowed to see it in operation up close. The reporter, Aaron Aupperlee, had this to say about the experience:
The car drove itself over the 31st Street Bridge and along River Avenue on the North Side before turning around at the Heinz Lofts. The car will accelerate, brake, steer and perform other basic functions on its own. It switches out of self-driving mode with a loud beep if its sensors detect a car swerving into its lane or it encounters something it does not recognize or know how to negotiate.
The driver can take control of the car at anytime. The car's sensors detected parked cars sticking out into traffic, jaywalkers, bicyclists and a goose crossing River Avenue.
It's the first official confirmation that Uber is testing its own self-driving technology in Pittsburgh, despite a preponderance of evidence pointing to that fact over the last year. Pittsburgh is where the ride-hailing giant has set up its Advanced Technologies Center, where a team of robotics experts Uber poached from places like Google and Carnegie Mellon University are working on autonomous driving technology.
Also, Pittsburgh's diverse environment make it a good place for testing, in so far as it presented a lot of obstacles for its robot cars to navigate. John Bares, head of the ATC, told the Tribune-Review that "the city's narrow and hilly streets, haphazard parking, rainy and snowy weather and aging infrastructure have made [Pittsburgh] a challenging place to test self-driving technology."
While Google has been the company that's most transparent about testing its self-driving car, Uber is the one most experts in the field are watching closely. The assumption is that self-driving cars, when fully ready, will be initially put to use as for-hire vehicles. And Uber, with its iron grip on the US's for-hire vehicle market, is best positioned to profit on that development.