Uber’s first self-driving cars start picking up passengers in Pittsburgh

After months of hype, the driverless future is here. At least for Pittsburgh.

Uber is rolling out its fleet of self-driving cars in the city, making them available for the first time to shuttle passengers.

The cars, hybrid Ford Fusions equipped with a barrage of gadgets on the roof including radar sensors, laser scanners and cameras, have been driving the streets of Pittsburgh in test mode since May. In a blog post on Wednesday, Uber announced the ride-hailing company’s “most loyal” customers in the city will now have a chance to experience the futuristic technology. When those preferred passengers use the Uber app to request a ride, they just might see a self-driving car roll up to meet them. Each car will have a driver sitting up front ready to grab the wheel if needed. If a self-driving car isn’t available (there’s only a handful on the road for now) a regular Uber will arrive instead.

So far, the rides seem to have been mostly smooth and not too scary, though some riders have reported a few jarringly sudden stops.

A New York Times reporter took a car for a spin and said turns and stops were “near seamless,” though it made him nervous to see how close the car drove to other cars parked on the side of the road.

The self-driving software still has limitations. It can’t navigate bad weather, according to Uber. It can’t turn right on red, The Wall Street Journal reported, and if the cars encounter an obstacle in the road, they are programmed to stop and remain in their lane. When a car a Journal reporter was riding in came upon a truck stopped in the road, the human driver had to take control to navigate around it.

Uber has poured resources into its self-driving program, acquiring autonomous trucking company Otto and partnering with Volvo. Uber says getting self-driving cars on the road will reduce traffic accidents (which today kill 1.3 million people a year) and free up the space cities now use to park cars.

Some experts wonder if Uber drivers eventually will become obsolete in a world of self-driving vehicles. But the ride-hailing company seems to be taking it slow — for now.

“We believe ridesharing will be a mix — with services provided by both drivers and self-driving Ubers,” the company wrote in its blog post. “This is because of the limits of self-driving software and the skyrocketing demand for better transportation which people-powered transport is uniquely able to solve.”

Photo: A self-driving car deployed by Uber on the streets of Pittsburgh (Uber).

Video: A look into Uber’s self-driving cars (Uber). 

 

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