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.”

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