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Our Reporter Goes for a Spin in a Self-Driving Uber Car

To catch up, Uber spent $ 680 million — roughly 1 percent of the company’s value — to buy Otto and its team of robotics veterans. Based in San Francisco, Uber has also poured millions of dollars into hiring hundreds of employees and spent more than 18 months getting the Advanced Technologies Center here in Pittsburgh, the home of its self-driving initiative, off the ground.

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A detail of a driverless Uber car’s monitor showing 3-D mapping of what the vehicle’s cameras see during a test drive in Pittsburgh on Monday. Credit Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

One lingering question over the effort is how driverless cars affect Uber’s business model. Much of the company’s success has been based on the premise that people could share their idle cars with the public by driving during their spare time. A self-driving car obviates the need for human drivers, a clear source of tension among Uber drivers today. Company executives said self-driving cars would be only one part of Uber’s business in the future, with a mix of drivers and autonomous vehicles.

Uber also faces an uncertain regulatory environment for driverless vehicles, and that could impede rollouts of the cars across the country.

“The regulatory barriers have to do with how big the risk can be and who will bear it,” said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law who specializes in robotics. Government agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will have to decide on minimum safety thresholds long before autonomous vehicles can see use on national highways, he said.

Uber will start collecting data to answer some of those questions with its driverless car tests in Pittsburgh, known for its unique topography and urban planning. The city, in essence a peninsula surrounded by mountains, is laid out in a giant triangle, replete with sharp turns, steep grades, sudden speed limit changes and dozens of tunnels. There are 446 bridges, more than in Venice, Italy. Residents are known for the “Pittsburgh left,” a risky intersection turn.

“It’s the ideal environment for testing,” said Raffi Krikorian, engineering director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center. “In a lot of ways, Pittsburgh is the double-black diamond of driving,” he said, using a ski analogy to underscore the challenge.

I experienced that firsthand in nearly an hour of riding in Boron 6 in light downtown Pittsburgh traffic. Once the trial kicks off on Wednesday, a handful of test vehicles — Ford Fusions at first — will roam the streets, each car coming with a human safety engineer who has undergone training to reassure riders that the process is safe.

At points during my ride, most of which I spent as a passenger in Boron 6’s back seat, my safety engineer had to take over the wheel and turn through intersections where locals are known to speed. When a truck driver backed out into the road illegally, my safety engineer put his foot on the brake, immediately taking control of the car.

If the safety engineer felt unsafe, he could at any time smack down a big red button in the center console — suspiciously similar to a seat ejector switch from a James Bond film — to disengage from self-driving mode. To turn the self-driving feature back on, he need only press a sleek steel button next to an embossed nameplate stamped on the console.

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Uber’s Tests of Autonomous Cars

Mike Isaac of The Times was among journalists who traveled to Pittsburgh to test Uber’s driverless vehicles.

By THE NEW YORK TIMES on Publish Date September 13, 2016. Photo by Jeff Swensen for The New York Times.

If I felt unsafe as a passenger, I could also request that the driver take over the vehicle, or press a button on a screen facing the back seat that would end the ride. I also monitored the infrared environment the car had rendered from the screen, a 3-D world updating in real time, and took a selfie from a camera built into the console. After the ride, Uber texts passengers an animated GIF of the 3-D modeled route taken, along with the selfie.

But for most of the ride, I rarely felt unsafe. In self-driving mode, turns and stops were near seamless, and I often had to check in with my driver to see whether he or the computer was steering the car. I did grow a bit nervous a few times when watching how close the computer drove us near cars parked on the right side of a street. Though, admittedly, that could have been my mind playing tricks on me by being more vigilant than usual about my surroundings.

From Uber’s point of view, the self-driving vehicle operates more safely than any human driver. My driverless Uber stopped far behind cars in front of us at intersections. It stayed exactly at the speed limit — 25 miles per hour where we drove — even when there was no traffic around. At a stoplight, the car waited for the green signal before turning right, much to the irritation of human drivers behind us.

Uber said autonomous cars can reduce vehicle-related deaths, including the nearly 40,000 that occurred in the United States last year, which was the deadliest for automotive-related deaths since 2008 and the largest year-over-year percentage increase in 50 years, according to the National Safety Council. There has been one reported death of a driver in an autonomous vehicle, that of a Tesla owner involved in a self-driving accident in May.

Some of Uber’s driverless plans may have been overly ambitious. When the company announced its autonomous car pilot last month, the tests were expected to roll out with Volvo XC90s, sport utility vehicles that would be modified in partnership with the automaker. Uber now says the XC90s are expected to hit the road by the end of the year, but offered no explanation for the delay. Volvo did not respond to a request for comment.

As my ride in Boron 6 wound down — in total, I traveled roughly 20 miles in the vehicle — it was hard not to feel like a celebrity, or perhaps more like a Martian. Other motorists gawked and a boy on a Razor scooter gaped at me from a corner, waving to his mother to come look.

This future has been a long time coming. Advertising for self-driving cars goes at least as far back as the 1950s, with images of families in cars huddled around game boards in the back seat, playing dominoes. Some of the people involved in the Uber project have spent their entire careers working toward a day like Wednesday.

There will be bugs, such as the one I encountered my first time behind the wheel when the self-driving car didn’t drive itself. That’s the whole point of the pilot test. The wealth of sensors and recording equipment will see what happens — warts and all — “so we can learn more about what makes drivers and riders comfortable and safe,” said Emily Duff Bartel, a product manager at the Advanced Technologies Center.

For me, it took about 10 minutes of troubleshooting to work through the glitches, but Boron 6 eventually turned on and started driving itself. That is, after a little bit of human intervention.

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