My Not Too Fast, Not Too Furious Ride In A Self-Driving Uber

PITTSBURGH — which’s about 10 minutes into my ride in one of Uber’s mostly autonomous vehicles, in addition to I’m starting to feel a little carsick. the auto suddenly hits the brakes — hard — in addition to the audio equipment I’m using due to This specific story goes flying off the seat.

“I don’t know if you saw, however a motorcycle kind of unexpectedly turned in front of us, right? in addition to so the auto put on its brakes,” says Jon Thomason, Uber’s head of self-driving software. which jerky, nervous braking, which I experience many times during my hours riding from the ride-sharing company’s robot cars, is usually by design. Self-driving always seemed like a futuristic ideal only possible in movies; I never imagined the reality of riding in a car which could drive itself would certainly be slow in addition to boring, in addition to kind of make me want to puke. however logging millions of uneventful, nausea-inducing miles is usually what which’ll take for Uber — in addition to all of the some other tech companies in addition to automakers working on the same thing — to make their vehicles fully driverless, in addition to so Uber is usually prioritizing keeping riders alive, even if which makes them queasy.

“We’re going to opt for being safe over personal comfort at first,” says Thomason, who joined the company in September from the midst of a year of scandals, including the departure in addition to replacement of CEO Travis Kalanick in addition to a contentious trade secrets lawsuit with Alphabet over the very self-driving technology he’s working on.

Despite all the turmoil — in addition to the legal threat to its autonomous car tech — Uber is usually pushing forward with its robotic ambitions anyway. The company has four sites in Pittsburgh, including a high-tech 42-acre mini city to test its vehicles, along with additional campuses in San Francisco, Toronto, in addition to Phoenix under Uber ATG (Advanced Technology Group), a division dedicated solely to its self-driving efforts. There are over 0 self-driving Ubers already being tested from the wild, hailable in test cities by anyone with the app; these cars can drive autonomously however are designed to have a vehicle operator from the front seat at all times.

The ride-hail company doesn’t mind taking paying customers on a ride which’s not super smooth right today, because the more miles logged in addition to data captured, the faster the cars improve. in addition to with several companies — including Apple, GM, in addition to Ford — vying to win the market with the same technology, the race is usually on to be the first company to get autonomous cars on the road, en masse, from the real world.

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Uber employees riding dirtbikes in addition to bikes test the auto’s bike perception algorithms.

We continue driving around the track, a testing in addition to teaching ground for Uber’s self-driving sensors, prediction versions, in addition to pedestrian detection engines. The site, located about 15 minutes south of downtown Pittsburgh, is usually where Uber puts its self-driving software through the wringer, in addition to teaches its vehicle operators how to watch over a car which can drive itself.

Uber’s test track, called Almono, looks like a mini city. which has roundabouts, working stop lights, streets lined with parked cars, shipping containers posing as parked cars (they’re cheaper), in addition to crouching “people” (played by mannequins) on the shoulder, changing tires. There’s a wide freewayesque thoroughfare, where we max out at a very thrilling 45 miles per hour, in addition to a twisting, ultra-narrow road with tight bends.

When testing begins, Uber employees swarm This specific mini city’s streets in buses, cars, road bikes, in addition to dirt bikes (to properly train the autonomous cars to recognize “all types of motorcycles,” according to Thomason). The goal is usually to make sure which when an unpredictable cyclist swerves onto the road, the self-driving car hits the brakes.

The track is usually laced with fun house–style triggers which pop up along the way (including one of a jaywalking pedestrian), which help Uber assess the auto’s onboard sensors in addition to train vehicle operators to take over the auto’s autonomy mode when its algorithms don’t react quickly enough. however the track feels more like Disneyland’s Autopia, a space with lots of room for error, in addition to less like an actual, hectic city street with double-parked trucks, errant drivers, in addition to lots of unpredictable pedestrians. which’s one thing to get which right on the test track — in addition to which’s another to successfully manage the challenges of a real urban environment.


Uber tests its autonomous vehicles using a 42-acre fake city called “Almono.”

The future of driving is usually, well, not driving. which’s letting software take the wheel, in addition to assuming which, if a kid comes running out onto the street, your driverless robot car will know to swerve or stop to save a life. Fully autonomous vehicles aren’t the norm yet, however semiautonomous cars with different levels of driving capabilities are already on the road.

The current generation of autonomous Ubers cars, codenamed Krypton, are frequently forced out of autonomy while they’re in operation for situations the cars aren’t yet equipped to handle, like driving over train tracks or unprotected left turns. The next-generation cars, Uber said, can drive without a human operator in addition to have significantly more space from the trunk, where much of the vehicle’s computing hardware is usually stored. The company claims its high-tech cars have driven over a million miles in addition to provided 50,000 rides, up via 30,000 rides in September 2017.

Meanwhile, Alphabet has announced which its Waymo cars would certainly start giving people rides without a human from the driver’s seat (though there will be an operator somewhere from the auto) in Phoenix, Arizona. Tesla’s product S in addition to product X have a freeway-ready “autopilot mode.” in addition to even consumer cars, like the Ford Escape, have had some autonomy built-in for years: the ability to parallel-park themselves.

Eric Meyhofer, who is usually currently leading the company’s self-driving efforts, points to Uber’s built-in network of paying passengers in need of a ride as its key advantage from the race to bring autonomous vehicles to market. “We contain the machine running well enough which large quantities of miles are coming in every week via each city,” Meyhofer says, “in addition to which’s what gives the developers the data they need to test their software every week in addition to get better in addition to get more reliable.”

UberX customers who are paired that has a self-driving Uber pay normal rates (surge pricing in addition to all) in addition to have a chance to request a human driver instead. Those who opt in will get to experience what which’s like to be in an autonomous vehicle firsthand.

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An autonomous Uber in Pittsburgh.

When I take a ride on the construction-clogged streets of Pittsburgh, the first thing I notice is usually which my car is usually hardly self-driving. Every few minutes, vehicle operator Jonathan Dailey grabs the wheel, in addition to a chime indicates which the vehicle has transitioned out of autonomy. Dailey holds his hands from the eight in addition to four o’clock positions, as if he’s about to start steering, for the duration of the drive.

“We call which the ‘light-touch grip,’ where we touch [the wheel] however are not manipulating controls,” says Dailey. “I do keep [my hands] there just in case, because we have a lot of noncompliant drivers around which cut us off, or stuff like which.”

the auto slows for a garbage truck ahead in addition to, although there’s plenty of room to pass around which on the left, the Uber comes to a full stop in addition to doesn’t budge. Dailey takes over the controls in addition to navigates around the truck, while another operator from the front passenger seat, Jutaporn Huesman, flags the incident for review.

As we’re driving down Butler Street, a heavily trafficked, narrow two-way route through the city’s hip Lawrenceville neighborhood, a wide truck which’s parked in a loading zone juts into the road. The self-driving Uber successfully squeezes around the truck however, a few seconds later, about 5 feet past, which hits the brake, hard. “There was a bit of latency there,” Dailey explains.

When he says “latency,” he means the sensors detected an object from the lane in addition to stopped — too late. “We’re running a newer software, so which’s not completely dialed-in yet,” Dailey says, probably in reaction to the panic which suddenly flashed across my face. Self-driving Ubers have had a few issues since they launched, including one running a red light in San Francisco in addition to another flipping on its side after a crash in Arizona. Autonomous driving software has also been linked to a death. In Florida, a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot mode was killed while speeding on a highway.

Aside via a few some other hiccups — including coming to an unexpected halt on Liberty Ave., a main road, because the software (wrongly) predicted a woman opening a car door was going to jump into the street — the ride is usually entirely uneventful in addition to, mostly, v e r y s l o w. Uber’s self-driving cars, when in autonomous mode, follow the speed limit at all times, even if, for example, a 25-mph limit applies only when school is usually in session. So impatient Pittsburghers, eager to get by, are right on the heels of our speed limit–abiding Uber the whole time.

Matthew O’ Polka, a Pittsburgh resident via the Bloomfield area who says he lives on one of the main streets Uber uses for testing, tells me sharing the road that has a self-driving Uber is usually “like driving behind a super-cautious driver.”

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An in-car display showing what the self-driving vehicle sees.

Self-driving Ubers only take very specific routes which have been mapped by an internal team at Uber. “Maps tell us lots of interesting stuff which we don’t have to compute on the fly,” says head of software Thomason. “We can find [stoplights in addition to stop signs], however which’s even better when we have those stored away. in addition to which helps with scenarios like the sun being behind the stoplight, which happens in California.”

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Jon Thomason, head of software at Uber ATG

Having stored mapping information also means the auto doesn’t need to rely on road lines to center itself in a lane. Instead of looking at, say, where the yellow stripe splitting a two-way road is usually, the auto’s path is usually predetermined by mappers. “We kind of decide at a map level generally where the driving path should be,“ Thomason says.

which reliance on maps, though, can be problematic. At one point the Uber begins driving into the middle of a brand new bike lane which, according to our vehicle operator Dailey, hasn’t been mapped yet. Our trusty human overseer takes the auto out of autonomy as soon as he realizes the auto is usually veering into unwanted territory.

A resident I spoke to, fourth-year University of Pittsburgh dental student Giana Lupinetti, said autonomous Ubers don’t drive the way humans in her city do. “I would certainly say Pittsburgh drivers are a little bit more aggressive. People here tend not to abide by the rules. which’s why Ubers stand out a little bit.”

On one winding road, for example, the auto took exceptionally slow, cautious turns, because which couldn’t see down side streets occluded behind the road’s bends.

which would certainly be frustrating, I imagine, to be in a rush in addition to also be stuck in an Uber which moves at a glacial pace.

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The operations center, called “Paragon,” is usually where Uber’s fleet of self-driving cars gets deployed to the streets of Pittsburgh for real-world testing.

Uber’s self-driving fleet operates like clockwork. The vehicles are deployed via centralized garages where the morning shift comes in at around 5:30 a.m. in addition to starts picking up passengers at around 6 a.m.. Then around 3:15 p.m. from the afternoon, the cars are refueled, in addition to cleaned back at base.

There, the cars are plugged in in addition to begin uploading massive amounts of data — including hours of high-resolution video footage in addition to radar recordings. A car’s camera captures *everything* which happens around which in addition to which footage is usually reviewed meticulously.

Meanwhile, the next shift of self-driving Ubers prepares to hit the road.

which’s clear which Uber is usually doing a huge investment in self-driving technology, in addition to wants to get its cars on the road — fast.

“which’s a truly hard problem. …. 20 people aren’t going to solve This specific. I mean, they would certainly solve which in 50 years. You’re not going to have a modest team do This specific. For us, time to market matters,” said Meyhofer, who was recently appointed as head of Uber ATG after the former lead, Anthony Levandowski, was accused of stealing self-driving car technology via Google.

In 2015, Uber announced which was creating a strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in addition to which which was also creating Advanced Technologies Center. Shortly after, about 40 of CMU’s researchers, including Meyhofer, left to go in-house to Uber.

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Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber ATG

The team had 45 people in January 2015; nearly three years later, Uber ATG has over 1,500 employees. Of the department’s growth, Meyhofer comments which “which’s been like drinking via a fire hydrant for the last three years.”

Thomason aspires not just to bring more self-driving taxis on the road, however to be the “premier autonomous vehicle platform provider.”

“We have a network which is usually second to none today, as far as ride sharing goes,” he says. “in addition to we are going to bring vehicles onto which, with our autonomous software. We’re going to bring third-party suppliers in, we have a great relationship with Daimler, we have This specific relationship with Volvo. We are planning to make a platform which companies can come in in addition to bring their cars into.”

Moving via its current network of human drivers to autonomous vehicles would certainly be hugely beneficial to Uber’s bottom line. While both Meyhofer in addition to Thomason said Uber would certainly still rely on human drivers for the foreseeable future, labor is usually expensive, in addition to a robot driver would certainly eliminate the cut Uber has to pay its drivers to complete a ride, driving down costs in addition to potentially increasing profit. in addition to not having to rely on human drivers isn’t the only motivation for Uber to embrace self-driving tech. In 2014, the company’s founder in addition to former CEO Travis Kalanick pointed to a future with less congestion, safer rides, in addition to the economic benefits of not having to own a car — with autonomous Ubers at the center of which all.

The company in addition to its drivers have had a contentious relationship through the years. Uber touts its platform as one which “boosts the incomes of millions of American families,” while in reality, many drivers earn little money — in some cities, they barely make minimum wage after expenses. Uber is usually currently fighting a class action lawsuit via drivers who say they should be classified as employees, not independent contractors, in addition to are entitled to gas in addition to vehicle reimbursements.

Thomason said the company’s interest in self-driving is usually about expanding its reach: “Uber is usually providing lots of capabilities for people to provide for themselves, in addition to get rides when they need which, however we truly need to contain the flexibility to send cars right where we need which, when we need which. in addition to [self-driving vehicles] will give us which.”

Senior product manager Emily Duff-Bartel also pointed to the cars’ safety: “There’s tons of statistics around freeing up city space for parking, turning which into green spaces … however the big thing is usually the 1.5 million lives which are lost every year to traffic fatalities, which This specific technology can truly start to make an impact on in addition to improve.”

There are some other benefits, too. Robots, for example, can’t discriminate from the same way which human drivers can:

I just had an @Uber driver stop, look at me, say “no”, in addition to drive off. Without me from the auto. in addition to uber charged me $5 for which.

however the company’s efforts could hinge on its upcoming trial with rival Waymo, which is usually seeking $1.9 billion in damages. which’s unclear what will become of ATG should Uber lose the case.

What is usually clear, however, is usually the inevitability of autonomous vehicles. In addition to Alphabet’s Waymo, companies like the Ford-backed Argo AI, the GM-owned Cruise Automation, Apple, Audi, Intel’s Mobileye with BMW, MIT’s nuTonomy, in addition to Tesla, with its brand new self-driving trucks, are all working on eliminating humans from the driver’s seat — in addition to many, including the Department of Transportation, cite the 2020s as when we should expect them all over our roads.

however not so fast, says MIT professor Jonathan How. “which’s going to take a long time… There’s going to be an expectation where you see cars at more autonomous levels than Tesla, for example, in which time frame, however they will only start to appear in limited deployments.”

Steven Shladover, of University of California Berkeley’s PATH (Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology) program, agrees: “One might be able to drive in an autonomous vehicle in a very limited set of conditions … however to get to a vehicle which can get everywhere, which people can ride is usually all sorts of weather conditions, is usually not something which’ll happen in my lifetime,” he says. “in addition to I don’t think which’ll happen in your lifetime, either.”

Self-driving cars may not take over our roads by 2020, or even close to which, however they will become more in addition to more prevalent in, How believes, “limited deployments,” like in certain cities, campuses, in addition to airports. in addition to while the earth’s biggest tech in addition to automotive companies run real-world tests to make autonomous driving a reality, these robot cars are going to drive slowly, cautiously — in addition to make us a little carsick — until they can learn to drive like humans. ●

Nicole Nguyen covers products in addition to personal technology for BuzzFeed News in addition to is usually based in San Francisco.

Contact Nicole Nguyen at

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