Thanks to Uber, it’s finally possible to experience riding in a self-driving car.
Uber is allowing select users to hail its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, starting Wednesday morning.
For those really eager to get in one, you’ll unfortunately need a special invite to try it out, which Uber says it’s only sending to its “most loyal” customers.
Uber declined to fully clarify what qualifies as “loyal,” only saying it was determined by the number of rides hailed. Where you tend to hail a ride also factors into whether you’re getting an invite, as Uber’s cars are only able to navigate in a limited area like downtown Pittsburgh and the Shadyside neighbourhood, which is north of downtown.
Still, caveats aside, it’s a big deal in the self-driving car space. This is the first time members of the public can experience the technology firsthand, and the first time we can see how people really feel about these cars hitting the roads.
We got a sneak preview of the self-driving cars hitting Pittsburgh’s roads. Here’s what it was like:
To try out the cars, we lined up at Uber's Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. -- a small neighbourhood on the Alleghany River with several nearby warehouses. The ATC was tucked under an overpass for a freight train, keeping it secluded and out-of-sight.
The ATC itself is sleek and modern, featuring floor-length windows and giant wooden staircases. The ground floor is composed of tables that can be converted into a dining area and several seating areas for relaxing.
Once we got inside we got some up-close views of the first and second edition of Uber's self-driving car. Here, we see the first edition -- a Ford Fusion with a giant retrofitted roof rack filled with autonomous car tech.
The car has 20 cameras, a top-mounted LiDAR, antennae providing GPS positioning, and several LiDAR and radar modules around the car so it can 'see' its surroundings.
LiDAR stands for light-sensing radar, which is a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to map out the world around the car so it can 'see' obstacles.
As you can see, it's a fairly clunky roof rack. Eric Meyhofer, the engineering lead for the self-driving car project, says it's capable of firing 1.4 million laser points per second to build a three-dimensional view of the car's surroundings. A coloured camera underneath the giant LiDAR puts that 3D view in colour so it can sense things like traffic light changes.
Uber's retrofitted Volvo is its second-edition car. Meyhofer said the system works 'as good or better in every regard' as the Ford Fusion, but uses fewer cameras and integrates everything more cleanly.
But if you're getting a ride in Pittsburgh, it will be in the so-called first edition Ford Fusion. I mean, just take a minute to look at all of them.
If you're given access, you'll hail the self-driving Uber the same way you would with any other UberX. It will alert you that you've been matched with the self-driving Uber, and that only two passengers can get in. That's because there will be a driver and an engineer sitting in the front seat to make sure everything goes smoothly.
There's a special screen in the backseat of the self-driving Uber that will welcome you and also remind you of the two-passenger limit again. The screen shows trip details, the route, and planned turns for the purpose of making 'riders feel comfortable and safe,' Emily Bartel, Product Manager at Uber ATC, said. You can't change the route and must enter the destination in advance because the cars are limited to largely the downtown area.
It will also show a real-time LiDAR map of the car's surroundings so you can get a sense of how the car sees the world. Part of the Pittsburgh pilot is meant to suss out how much information is necessary to provide to make customers feel safe in a self-driving car.
Once you're actually riding in the self-driving car, it feels surprisingly ... normal. My driver had his hands on the wheels most of the time just in case he had to take over, so we had to double check a few times that the car was, in fact, self-driving.
But that speaks to just how good these cars are at handling city roads. Pittsburgh terrain isn't easy to tackle, with steep heels and several bridges, but the cars rolled through just fine.
That being said, the cars are nowhere near perfect. There were at least four occasions in our roughly five-mile route where a 'ding' went off indicating the driver needed to take control. It happened once on a bridge, but also on a perfectly straight back road without any perceptible obstacles.
The car will also signal that a driver needs to take over via a tiny toolbar above the wheel. Here, you see a circle lit in blue, indicating the car is in manual mode. A green checkmark will show once it's autonomous, and a red slash indicates there's a problem.
If you want to take control of the car again, even if there isn't a problem, it's fairly easy to do. Simply turning the handle or pressing the brake or accelerator will shut autonomous mode off. There's also a giant red kill switch if you want to be dramatic about it.
Overall, aside from having an extra person upfront with a laptop, being in a self-driving Uber feels relatively normal. If you have access, you can hail one starting Wednesday between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Keep in mind you're agreeing to be filmed so Uber can see how people are reacting to the cars.
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