- Uber is testing its self-driving cars in a fake city it built in Pittsburgh called the ALMONO.
- The fake city has a giant roundabout, fake cars, and roaming mannequins that jump out into the street without warning.
- Uber also uses the ALMONO to train vehicle operators before allowing them to monitor the cars in the real world.
Uber’s self-driving-car pilot isn’t without its controversy, but the program is still alive and well in Pittsburgh.
The ride-hailing giant published a new video earlier this month showing a glimpse of its fake city where the company’s robocars learn how to drive in the real world.
Called ALMONO, the fake city is built on an old steel mill site along the Monongahela River in Hazelwood. It has a giant roundabout, fake cars, and roaming mannequins that jump out into the street without warning. There are even containers meant to stimulate buildings, training the cars to operate even when looming structures block their line of site.
ALMONO measures 11,000 square-feet, but Uber has asked the Hazelwood zoning board for permission to expand the city an additional 13,000 square-feet. The request shows the vital role the track plays in not only preparing self-driving cars to enter the world, but training the vehicle operators that sit behind the wheel to prepare for the unexpected.
“We have obstacles and mannequins that move and can cross the street in front of the car. We have prop vehicles zooming around,” Rick McKahan, an Uber vehicle operator, said in an interview. “In most situations, we simulate those in such a way that they’re worse than anything you would see out on public roads.”
Uber’s self-driving cars have had their hiccups. Last December, a video caught an Uber running straight through a red light, which the company later said was due to “human error.” In March, A self-driving Uber in Arizona flipped over after a car hit it, raising questions about how autonomous vehicles respond to human error.
Uber wasn’t at fault for any of these incidences, but they show why the company still needs vehicle operators to keep an eye out.
The program that trains vehicle operators is fairly vigorous. It takes three weeks to complete and requires trainees to pass multiple written assessments and road tests. An Uber representative said the company employs “hundreds” of safety drivers, but declined to provide a specific count.
Vehicle operators first practice on the ALMONO test track before monitoring the cars in the real world, which are capable of driving in Downtown Pittsburgh, the Strip District, Bloomfield, Shadyside, Southside, Oakland, and Squirrel Hill.
Just like the vehicle operators, the Uber cars don’t leave ALMONO until they have successfully passed certain tests, like braking when a mannequin jets out in front of it.
Uber isn’t the only company to build a fake city to train its self-driving vehicles. Ford has one called MCity in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that measures 32 acres.
Uber introduced its self-driving cars to the public for the first time last September when it started allowing users to hail a ride in robotic Ford Fusions in the Steel City. It was a huge launch at the time, considering major competitors like Google had yet to expose its technology to the real world. For many, it showed Uber was dead serious about being a player in the autonomous space.
Uber has since launched programs in Arizona and San Francisco. However, the cars are only used to map routes in San Francisco after the California DMV revoked Uber’s vehicle registrations in a public dispute.
The fate of Uber’s self-driving-car program is still somewhat unknown. Waymo, Google’s spinoff company, is suing Uber, claiming the company stole intellectual property and trade secrets to advance the program. The trial is scheduled for December.
But as the two tech behemoths battle it out in the courtroom, Uber’s cars will continue whizzing down streets in a fake city in downtown Pittsburgh, preparing for an autonomous, ride-hailing future.
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