Uber begins testing autonomous cars in Pittsburgh

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

The race to develop self-driving cars is heating up across the country as more vehicles equipped with sensors and equipment atop the roof show up on more city streets.

Uber Technologies Inc. on Thursday said it’s testing at least one self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid on the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, while General Motors Co. confirmed that at least one autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EV has begun testing in San Francisco.

GM and Uber join other companies including Google Inc., Ford Motor Co. and multiple automotive suppliers that test on public roadways in states like Michigan, California and Nevada.

Uber outfitted the Fusion hybrid with radar, laser scanners and cameras to collect mapping data as well as test its self-driving capabilities. Photographers have spotted the ride-hailing service testing cars for about a year now, but Uber has been relatively secretive about its plans — until now.

“Real-world testing is critical to our efforts to develop self-driving technology,” Uber said in a blog. “Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world. 1.3 million people die every year in car accidents — 94 percent of those accidents involve human error. In the future we believe this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents.”

It’s unclear how many vehicles Uber will test. An Uber spokeswoman declined further comment Thursday and referred questions to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which said the car began tests several weeks ago and can “accelerate, brake, steer and perform other basic functions on its own.”

The company said it has informed local officials and law enforcement about the test car.

“Pittsburgh is an ideal environment to develop and test our technology across a wide variety of road types, traffic patterns and weather conditions,” Uber said.

The testing program is the result of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, which it opened 15 months ago in Pittsburgh in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. Since that time, Uber has been beefing up its autonomous car testing team.

Last August, Uber hired Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, the duo who became famous for showing they could hack into a moving Jeep. In April, the company hired Sherif Marakby, a former Ford engineer, as vice president of its global vehicles program.

Earlier this year, Uber joined Ford, Google, Lyft and Volvo to form a new coalition to urge lawmakers to take action on regulations surrounding self-driving vehicles.

Uber’s main ride-hailing rival, Lyft, also is working on autonomous cars. Earlier this month, Lyft’s director of product said it’s partnering with GM to develop a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs.

GM last week officially acquired Cruise Automation, a San Francisco-based software startup it hopes will help hasten development of self-driving technology. Cruise Automation, on its website Thursday, confirms it is testing its autonomous technology on Bolt EVs in San Francisco. It included a photo of a test drive with Cruise founder and CEO Kyle Vogt behind the wheel.

Cruise Automation is operating independently within GM’s new autonomous-vehicle development team and is based in San Francisco. The firm had about 40 employees in March and is seeking to fill some 20 jobs, mostly engineers.

Separately Thursday, Jeremy Guillory announced that Cruise Automation and Vogt had settled a dispute over Guillory’s claim to have an equity interest in the company. In a short statement, Guillory said the two parties have come to “mutually agreeable terms” — and that both sides will dismiss their lawsuits and Cruise and Vogt acknowledge Guillory was “an initial co-founder of Cruise.”

The lawsuits were filed after GM announced its plans to buy Cruise Automation, reportedly for about $1 billion.


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Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.