Hey Pittsburgh, We're Getting Uber's First Batch of Self-Driving Cars

Driverless Uber
Courtesy of Volvo

Uber has made good on its promise to put self-driving cars on the road. Its first stop: Pittsburgh. According to Bloomberg, a pilot fleet of cars will be roaming the Steel City as soon as the end of August, though an official start date has not been addressed. Rides and pickups appear to be limited to the Downtown area only.

People surprised at the choice of Pittsburgh as its proprietary test location shouldn't be. It's been tapped as a burgeoning tech hub -- Google's had a growing presence since 2006, and there are more than a handful of high-performing incubators, namely AlphaLab

Uber is practically the new guy, first scoping out its digs here in 2014. Since then, it's had close -- maybe too close -- ties with Carnegie Mellon's robotics program, largely considered one of the best in the country. It was accused of poaching 50 of CMU's most talented researchers, then turning around and calling it a "strategic partnership" in advancing robotics. But we're not here to tear into old drama; what you need to know is that they've been shacked up in Lawrenceville since early-ish 2015.

Back in May, Uber unveiled its first self-driving car (notably, a Ford Fusion) that it'd be testing on real streets while delivering a hilariously backhanded compliment, crediting Pittsburgh's shitty weather and aging roads as the "world's best test site." According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "We view it as, it’s not quite Everest, but it’s a hard mountain…," said John Bares, the head of Uber's Pittsburgh research lab, "but the beautiful thing is we do have that mountain right out of our front door to climb." Now, having summited Everest, the technology will be confronted with the task it was always intended to perform: cart around the masses.  

As our tech reporter notes, the writing has been on the wall for at least two years. Uber's made it no secret that it wants to make driving safer by instating fully autonomous fleets, eventually in every city where it operates. Current Uber drivers who dare brush off Uber's ability to capital-d Disrupt: it's time to start looking for a new gig. But there's a bit more time to land something else than the overwrought headlines may make it seem. 

The contract (which was made with Volvo, not Ford) will start with a small fleet of cars by the end of August and add 100 Volvo SUVs modified with Uber's technology by the end of the year. The company promises completely redesigned cars on the road by 2021, which seems to be the magic year for all car companies gunning to put out self-driving models. 

As it stands, however, cars without a human companion aren't due to take over anytime soon, since researchers only just figured out how to trick crucial sensors into working properly when weather is anything less than immaculate. (Vox brings up a good point, though: just because the technology will eventually be there down the line doesn't mean the laws to let it happen will be.)

It appears that, on the rider's end, not much will change, save for being greeted by an "engineer" sitting patiently and blankly in the driver's seat, with a note-taking nerd in the passenger's seat (hehe, just kidding -- they're there to take control of the wheel in an emergency, and QA and monitor the car, respectively). Whether that's preferable to the typical curmudgeon of a driver talking to a friend on the other end of their cell phone, it's too soon to say (also kidding! Pittsburgh is full of very nice people). 

Users Downtown will be selected for a ride in the autonomous cars at random, so keep your divinity crystals close if you're eager to try it out, or pray to whatever god you believe in if you don't. One extra perk: if you are selected, your ride will be totally free, at least to start.

We've reached out to Uber for comment and will update if/when they respond. Just remember: the end is nigh, people.

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Leanne Butkovic is a recovering tech blogger and Cities Editor at Thrillist. Find her on Twitter: @leanbutk.