Payne: In the backseat of a self-driving Uber

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh —  I am in the backseat of a self-driving Uber vehicle, a Volvo XC90 being tested like a lab mouse through a maze of urban streets.

Cruising south on busy, one-way Penn Avenue heading to downtown Pittsburgh, the Volvo encounters a delivery truck blocking the right lane. A worker is unloading its contents to the curb. But before the XC90’s computer brain can react, an engineer takes over the steering wheel, easing the SUV to the left. The engineer (“operator” in Uber lingo) explains he didn’t want the Volvo to surprise the worker by coming too close before veering left. Unlike a human driver, the self-driving Volvo hasn’t quite learned to acknowledge that it sees the deliveryman by giving him a wide berth early on.

I have done media ride-alongs in controlled Silicon Valley environments in Google’s self-driving Lexus SUVs and its cute “marshmallow” car. Each of those vehicles was equipped with autonomous systems similar to Uber’s Volvo. This drive, however, was not a planned media event, but a ride through Steel City streets in the middle of a busy workday. I was having the same experience as any paying passenger who hails one of Uber’s 40 autonomous vehicles that navigate Pittsburgh 365 days a year.

The experience proves the potential of autonomous vehicles — and how far they still must travel to gain acceptance in the marketplace.

Two women amble across the street in front of the Volvo, oblivious to its presence. The XC90 slows, giving them space. The autonomous car doesn’t honk and doesn’t crowd them. It lets them go on their carefree way.

Such driving subtleties are crucial to Uber as it operates the fleet of autonomous vehicles. Uber’s self-driving SUVs are more than an experiment – they are real-world beta tests in how autonomy can deliver a satisfactory experience to Uber passengers.

Like its human drivers, Uber wants autonomous vehicles to earn a five-star customer rating. So nothing is left to chance.

Urban streets are automobility’s most challenging operating environment, which is why Uber is here. Unless and until autonomy can provide a seamless experience, it is not ready for prime time in the hands of a ride-sharing brand that puts a premium on passenger experience.

Atop the Volvo, a head unit containing cameras and a spinning Electrodyne lidar laser-detection array – operators call it the “chicken bucket” – sees a stop sign at a four-way intersection and eases the Volvo to a stop. But before the XC90 turns right, a truck lurches into the SUV’s path. The operator takes over, lest the Volvo accelerate forward and then slam on the brakes.

Uber agreed to give me a ride under the condition that I not quote its operators and not broadcast live video. Otherwise, I was free to report on the experience — which I complemented with rides in “regular” Uber cars with drivers who gave me insight into what it’s like to coexist with the autonomous Volvos.

Two Uber operators occupy the front seats of every XC90, and I was surprised how frequently the driver took control of the robotic car. The operator explained that Uber is determined that autonomous cars learn from — and drive like — humans.

After months on the road, they concede the Volvos are not there yet.

Self-driving Ubers roam the streets of Pittsburgh, but with two operators in the front seats, and they take control surprisingly often.

Taking a right off Penn toward Smallman Street, the XC90 encounters a temporary construction site. The concrete New Jersey barriers occupy not just the inside lane, but part of the outside lane as well, bringing us to a stop. The operator takes over, explaining that the computer is confused by the partial lane-blockage – and likely would wait indefinitely, not sure what to do next.

The driver deftly maneuvers around the barrier, taking care that he doesn’t impede oncoming traffic.

Each episode is monitored and logged by the passenger-seat operator who sees the road through the XC90’s eyes on a laptop screen.

That data is then fed to Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group just north of downtown. This is Uber’s national self-driving headquarters (another operation in San Francisco is working on self-driving trucks). Run by ex-Carnegie Mellon University robotics guru Eric Meyhofer, ATG employs some 700 engineers, software developers, and operators.

Their autonomous fleet was recently upgraded from Ford Fusion sedans to roomier Volvo hybrids. The all-wheel drive, super- and turbocharged four-cylinder XC90 with battery-assist is an engineering marvel in itself. What the engineers really like is the 9.2-kWh lithium-ion battery that they use to help power their autonomous hardware.

The big computer and head unit are constructed at ATG and have gone through several evolutions. Uber has mapped four core districts in Pittsburgh — the equivalent to mapping Detroit’s downtown, Corktown, Greektown and Midtown — where the Volvos roam.

They don’t work outside that geo-fence. That means, for example, the self-drivers won’t take you to Pittsburgh’s airport. But Uber considers the interstate-heavy route to the airport light work for autonomous vehicles. They want to master inner-city streets.

Data from the cars is fed to Uber’s self-driving headquarters nearby (another operation in San Francisco works on autonomous trucks).

Aboard a regular Uber Hyundai Elantra, the driver shared with me some of the Volvo’s tendencies. For example, when the Hyundai tried to drive alongside the XC90, the robot car would drop back. Uber engineers confirmed this safety-first programming, but it also indicated how other vehicles can mess with the Volvo’s path, a concern for Uber as they program behavior.

Such detail only scratches the surface of where autonomous cars need to go to be viable, ride-sharing transportation. Uber says the vehicles have operated well in winter snows and rainstorms. But there is more than just getting a passenger from point A to B.

Smallman Street is lined with stores fronted by 45-degree, nose-in parking like Detroit’s Eastern Market. The area presents navigation challenges involving pedestrians, cars backing out of spaces and double-parked vehicles. Not to mention spontaneous passengers: Could I tell the Volvo to pull over while I ran into a store to get my wife a box of candy? No, because the Volvo has yet to incorporate passenger-to-vehicle communication.

Uber is on autonomy’s cutting edge. But there are other mice in the maze here including Ford-owned Argo. Come snow, rain, gloom of night or pop-up construction sites, they are determined that autonomy complete its appointed rounds.

Twitter: @HenryEPayne