The future is now, with Uber Technologies, Inc.’s delayed self-driving car trial finally getting under way in Pittsburgh Wednesday.
Despite previous reports that the trial would include a fleet of modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles, Uber instead went with a fleet of modified Ford Fusions that were outfitted with an array of cameras, lasers, radar and GPS to guide the vehicle.
According to The Post-Gazette, initially the availability of the self-driving vehicles will be limited to a well-defined area in Pittsburgh where Uber drivers and technicians have been testing the vehicles for some 18 months. Only a “handful” of the self-driving vehicles will be available.
While the vehicles themselves are self-driving, Uber will be providing what they call a “safety driver” with each car “to make sure the ride goes smoothly,” or more realistically to take over the driving should the system at any time fail. Next to the Uber driver is an engineer who monitors the car at all times.
“This pilot is a big step forward,” Uber said in a blog post. “Real-world testing is critical to the success of this technology. And creating a viable alternative to individual car ownership is important to the future of cities.”
Uber invited the media to trial the service on Monday and Tuesday prior to its official launch and the reviews were mostly positive, with some reservations.
Andrew Hawkins at The Verge described the experience as being one where he could “drink in all the splendor of the day without distraction because I wasn’t actually driving the car” before noting that “Uber’s self-driving car was equal parts thrilling and mundane.” Perhaps the most interesting part of the review is the description of an issue arising where a driver waved to let the vehicle pass but the Uber vehicle couldn’t understand a human gesture.
Tracey Lien from The Los Angeles Times described the experience as being so smooth she “got bored and started admiring the view out the window instead.”
Danielle Muoio at Business Insider was also positive, noting that “it’s truly incredible watching a car do everything from handling left turns at intersections to climbing up hills with ease without any input from the driver.”
ABC News took the path of interviewing someone who had tried the service, a 27-year-old bartender by the name of Taylor Pollier who said that “the Fusion ‘felt sharp,’ and the 15-minute ride to his bartending job went smoothly and felt ‘like taking an Uber any other day.'”
Mike Isaac at The New York Times described how the “safety driver” had to take over control of the vehicle on a number of occasions:
During my ride, most of which I spent as a passenger in [the cars] back seat, my safety engineer proved his worth. At various moments, he 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, he put his foot on the brake, immediately taking control of the car.
Liz Reid at NPR gave probably the best review, noting:
The ride feels pretty much like a ride in any other car — with an extremely cautious driver. We go maybe one or two miles an hour over the speed limit. Turns in particular feel painfully slow.
Overall this is new technology and there are always going to be issues, particularly given that humans — in this case, other drivers — can be unpredictable.
Unfortunately for those wanting to hail a self-driving Uber ride, there’s no set way to do so. The cars are being randomly assigned to frequent passengers who have agreed to participate in the program.