Pittsburgh residents get ready for driverless Uber cars

Pittsburgh residents get ready for driverless Uber cars

Brian FungThe Washington Post

Very soon, residents of this hilly city will become the first Americans to test out Uber‘s self-driving car service.

It is a historic moment not just for the ride-hailing company, but also for robotic cars in general. For many people, the technology will finally become a reality, one they can touch and experience rather than just read about.

Uber has been conducting its driverless-car tests on open roads since May. People in Pittsburgh say they have often seen the company’s prototypes driving around the city, their rooftops laden with sensors and communications equipment. But the project otherwise has been shrouded in secrecy, even from the drivers who sometimes ferry Uber employees to work in the Strip District.

Hence, what Pittsburgh locals think about Uber’s driverless cars has been shaped mostly by what they have observed with their own eyes. And their reactions run the gamut, from hope that the new technology will contribute to their city’s story of renewal, to questions about the cars’ performance on Pittsburgh’s complicated road network, to concerns about how the vehicles will affect the overall economy.

uber-referral-code5Most of all, interviews with city residents reveal a reluctance to trust a technology that Uber has kept so close to the chest.

“It’s scary, being driven by a robot,” Ada Gana said. “A person who’s driving knows what he’s doing or where he’s going. That gives me confidence.”

The San Francisco company staffs each of its driverless cars with two full-time employees, one to grasp the wheel and another to keep an eye on the computer software. That will not change when the company debuts its driverless service. But not everyone knows that. Some believed the cars would be empty, which suggests Uber has a lot of educating to do.

That is particularly the case for seniors, said Eva Tsuquiashi-Daddesio, 67. “If Uber or other companies want to be successful with the older population, they need to do a lot of demonstrations. Talk is not going to do anything,” she said. Seniors “have to see other people like them — like us, I suppose — using it, and they will have to see that it is safe.”

Even some younger people say they would be hesitant to try a self-driving Uber, although some predict that university students here will be among the most eager adopters.

For Uber drivers, however, it is no surprise that employment is the bigger concern.

Michelle Garrison has four children and treats driving for Uber as a full-time job. She wakes up at 5:15 a.m., Monday through Friday, and does not stop picking up passengers until 6 in the evening.

“I personally don’t care for it,” she said of the testing of self-driving cars. “I think it’s going to take jobs away from some of us. It’s going to take away from the actual drivers that are out here that are putting in the time and the hours.”

Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, has said that he does not expect the number of human drivers to decline anytime soon and that self-driving technology will create jobs, such as for fleet maintenance.

That is not enough to alleviate some Uber drivers’ worries. A few have signed on with a group called Cabbie Central, a Pittsburgh organization that represents nearly 250 people who drive for taxi and, increasingly, ride-hailing services. Although they compete intensely for the same customers, taxi drivers and Uber drivers are discovering they have much in common in the face of Uber’s automation experiments, said Jim Jacobs, the general manager of Cabbie Central and a taxi driver who has been in the business for 11 years.

Uber’s aggressive timetable in launching an autonomous service has led many of its drivers to grapple with an uncomfortable reality much sooner than expected, said Jacobs: This is what planned obsolescence really looks like.

Some who view their gig with Uber as a part-time or temporary job are not as worried. “It hasn’t affected me yet, and I’m not career-sold on doing this forever,” said Jason Renton, a driver who lives half an hour from downtown Pittsburgh. “So no, it doesn’t really bother me.”

He and other drivers say that 70% to 95% of their customers are skeptical of the technology.

There are still a lot of questions. Some residents worry about the ability of a self-driving car to successfully navigate to a rider’s location or to avoid sudden road closures. Pittsburgh is said to be a tough — as in “good” — test case for self-driving vehicles because the city has hills, bridges and older streets.

On Sept. 2, a construction accident on the Liberty Bridge caused a fire so hot, it melted part of the bridge’s support structure. The bridge has been closed for weeks, causing commuter headaches. But Uber’s navigation system did not appear to know about the closure, said Shiquita Crumbley, a Pittsburgh native who started driving for Uber a few months ago.

“GPSes are not always correct,” she said. “It might take you to this bridge, not necessarily knowing, hey, this bridge is not open, you can’t go on it. So just making sure it’s the most updated version — that’s going to be the biggest, biggest thing for everyone’s safety.”

For the foreseeable future, navigation may not be a big issue for the self-driving cars, as the Uber employee behind the wheel can always take over.

Local transportation activists say they support Uber’s effort. “People are bad at driving,” said Scott Bricker, executive director of the bicycling advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh. “Recently, a Pittsburgh bicyclist posted video of a self-driving Uber test car giving him space and passing at a slower speed in contrast to a car driven by a person…. If you ask me, taking the human factor out of driving can’t happen fast enough.”

Other local residents say the program helps put Pittsburgh on the map. In recent years, an influx of new money has brought tremendous growth for the former industrial powerhouse, reversing decades of decline.

“A lot of people have regional pride in the universities, big companies like Uber and Google being here,” said Hassan Khan, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University. Uber’s self-driving program, he said, “fits that narrative of Pittsburgh being a resurgent city through tech, through medicine.”

Livermore Police & 7 officers criminally charged in Bay Area police sex scandal, D.A. says

7 officers to be criminally charged in Bay Area police sex scandal, D.A. says

James Queally and Cindy Chang

Seven Bay Area law enforcement officers will be charged with sex offenses and other crimes in a scandal that has rocked the Oakland Police Department, threatening its hopes of ending 13 years of federal oversight and causing a major shake-up in its command staff.

The plan to charge the officers was announced Friday by Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley, who said she could not file the charges until the teenage woman at the center of the scandal returns to California after being sent to a rehabilitation program in Florida by another agency.

“Anyone, particularly in a position of authority, who engages in sexual exploitation or inappropriate sexual conduct with a minor or a young adult will be held accountable if we have the evidence,” O’Malley said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a police officer, a doctor, a probation officer, or a lawyer or a judge.”

Two law enforcement officers — Giovani LoVerde of the Oakland Police Department and Ricardo Perez, who has resigned from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department — will be charged with felony oral copulation with a minor, O’Malley said. Perez will also be charged with two counts of engaging in a lewd act.

Four other Oakland police officers will be prosecuted: Brian Bunton, on charges of felony obstruction of justice and engaging in an act of prostitution; Warit Utappa and Tyrell Smith, who allegedly searched a criminal justice computer system without an authorized purpose; and LeRoy Johnson, on charges of failing to report sexual misconduct against a minor.

Johnson has retired and Smith has resigned from the department.

Dan Black, who has retired from the Livermore Police Department, will be charged with two counts of engaging in an act of prostitution and two counts of a lewd act in a public place.

The alleged sexual offenses do not appear to have occurred while the officers were on duty, O’Malley said.

The officers could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier this year, Contra Costa County prosecutors declined to charge Smith after he had been accused of attempting to forcibly sodomize the woman. O’Malley said she believes Smith and Utappa had sexual contact with the woman in Contra Costa County, but her office has no jurisdiction outside of Alameda County.

In a television news interview in June, the 19-year-old Richmond woman claimed she had sex with more than a dozen Oakland police officers. Some of the encounters happened in exchange for information about planned prostitution raids, the woman has alleged, and others occurred when she was underage.

The scandal soon widened, as the woman claimed she also had had sex or other inappropriate contact with officers from other police agencies.

The woman’s name has been widely reported, but the Los Angeles Times has not published her identity because she may be a sex crime victim.

Some officers who engaged in “sexting” with the woman cannot be prosecuted because the victim was not underage, said O’Malley, who characterized the online activity as “sexually explicit or inappropriate chatter.”

O’Malley said that many police officers who were “friends” with the woman on Facebook had never met her in person, including Oakland police Officer Brendan O’Brien, whose suicide in September 2015 caused the city’s internal affairs unit to begin digging into the scandal. The woman has said in numerous interviews that she met O’Brien along International Boulevard when he saved her from an attack by a boyfriend or pimp.

O’Malley repeatedly stressed that those linked to the scandal did not represent the larger Oakland Police Department.

The actions of a few have really shone a very negative light on all of the hardworking men and women who come to work every day as police officers to protect our community,” O’Malley said.

Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers’ Assn., also emphasized that the vast majority of his colleagues were not involved in the scandal.

“Our officers are just as disappointed as everyone else in the blemish these events have made on the reputations of Oakland police officers who come to work every day and serve with honor in our community,” Donelan said in a written statement.

The decision to file charges was made public days after Oakland’s mayor announced that the city would fire four officers and suspend seven others without pay in connection with the scandal.

Local activists said O’Malley’s decision to prosecute might lead other victims of police misconduct to step forward and help flush bad officers out of the agency.

O’Malley showed “real leadership” in choosing to prosecute, but every officer implicated in the scandal should be forced out of the department, said Kenyatta Carter, a 37-year-old Oakland native and activist who founded Victims Of The System, a group that helps people bring grievances against state and city agencies.

“These officers should not be allowed to remain suspended and come back,” Carter said. “Training is not enough if you knew about what was going on with a minor, or sexting.… That’s unacceptable. Period.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Friday that she hoped the announcement of the charges would make clear that city officials are committed to eliminating a small group of officers who committed “disgusting misconduct.” Asked about calls to fire, rather than simply suspend, some of the officers connected to the scandal, Schaaf said the city attorney’s office and Oakland police internal affairs investigators were hamstrung by when and where some of the alleged misdeeds occurred.

“This case is complicated because most of the misconduct occurred off-duty,” she said in a telephone interview. “Not all of it — certainly, the improper use of databases was done on duty — but that should be taken into consideration.”

She said she could not comment on LoVerde’s, Bunton’s or Utappa’s status with the city police department.

O’Malley said her office had uncovered evidence of additional misconduct in several other jurisdictions, including the city of San Francisco, as well as San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties. On Thursday, Contra Costa County Chief Dist. Atty.  Doug McMaster told The Times that his office had not been presented with any prosecutable cases in connection with the scandal.

McMaster previously told The Times that the woman at the center of the case was sent to Florida with funds from a state victims’ advocacy program. He scoffed at the idea that she was “spirited away” to keep her from testifying. Calls to McMaster seeking additional comment Friday were not immediately returned.

On Aug. 29, the woman was arrested and charged with aggravated battery in Florida after she bit a security guard at the rehabilitation facility in Stuart, Fla., according to an arrest report filed by the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

Police were called to the facility after the woman became physically combative with several staff members. In interviews with sheriff’s deputies, she repeatedly discussed her past drug abuse and sexual encounters with police officers and later attempted to solicit sex from the deputies, according to the report.

An attorney representing the woman could not be reached for comment.

John Burris, the civil rights attorney who negotiated a legal settlement that placed Oakland under a federal monitor in 2003, said the woman’s arrest in Florida, coupled with O’Malley’s investigation poking holes in some of her narrative, could allow the officers’ attorneys to attack her credibility at trial.

The sex scandal grew in scope after Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent, who had been credited with bringing the department out of the shadow of the 2003 brutality scandal that led to the implementation of a federal monitor, resigned the same weekend the woman’s TV news interview aired.

Whent’s successor stepped down within days, as did the next police chief. The department is now run by a civilian city administrator.

Schaaf, the city’s mayor, said she will focus her attention on helping heal the widening rift between police and citizens, adding that she remained hopeful Oakland could attract a progressive, reform-minded candidate to fill the vacant chief’s post.

“No doubt this scandal has shaken not just community trust, but the forward momentum that this department was feeling,” Schaaf said. “But I have every confidence that we will move forward.”