Uber Rolls Out Self-Driving Car in Pittsburgh

© Getty/AFP/File Spencer Platt
© Getty/AFP/File Spencer Platt

Bristling with “a variety of sensors including radars, laser scanners, and high resolution cameras,” Uber’s first self-driving car is hitting the streets of Pittsburgh in the coming weeks, according to a blog post from the ride-sharing company.

Uber thinks its self-driving test vehicle “looks like it should be driven by a superhero.” It’s a fascinating piece of technology, to be sure, but it’s hard to imagine Batman jumping out of it to fight crime. It looks more like the after-hours emergency service vehicle that shows up when Egon is manning the night shift by himself, after the rest of the Ghostbusters have turned in for the night.

What the car looks like is less important than the data it will gather.

“The car, a hybrid Ford Fusion, will be collecting mapping data as well as testing its self-driving capabilities. When it’s in self-driving mode, a trained driver will be in the driver’s seat monitoring operations,” Uber explains.

The company is very enthusiastic about the promise of self-driving technology to “save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world,” by greatly reducing the number of automobile accidents caused by human error, and reducing road congestion.

It has long been a contention of self-driving advocates that computer guidance technology will improve traffic flow, because the automated vehicles will work together much more smoothly than human drivers do.

For example, Popular Mechanics cited research last year that making just 2 percent of cars autonomous would reduce traffic jams by up to 50 percent, by helping to break up the cascade of small bad decisions that add up to frustrating, and often completely illogical, road congestion.

There have been some interesting counter-arguments from skeptics, even under the assumption that self-driving technology works precisely as designed, with no horrible glitches. One such argument is that people will abuse robot cars and cause even more congestion, by doing things like telling the vehicle to drive around in circles until they need it again.

This would presumably be less of a concern with rental vehicles, which would ultimately be controlled by companies who bill for every minute of drive time, and have a vested interest in maximizing efficiency.

It’s interesting to ponder whether a company like Uber would program its vehicles to use the most efficient routes instead of the fastest routes – they’re not necessarily the same, and obviously a rental company has a financial interest in speedy travel.

One of the advantages touted by self-driving proponents is that computerized vehicles will work together to create more efficient traffic flow, which could mean somewhat longer drive times for many passengers, but presumably they won’t care that much if a computer is doing the driving for them. If most self-driving cars belong to transport companies interested in minimizing drive time, that trafflic flow advantage would take longer to materialize.

Of course, consumers are apt to be nervous about trusting self-driving vehicles at first, so as with the Uber test vehicle, there will be human backup drivers.

In the course of reporting the Uber launch, Yahoo News mentions another helpful idea from Google: “human flypaper” covering the front of self-driving cars, so that if they mow down pedestrians, the victims will “stick fast to the hood instead of bouncing off and likely suffering more injuries.”

“Many tech and car firms have long been working on pedestrian-detection systems, though until these are perfected, a sticky car could be a viable option,” Yahoo News explains.

That sounds like further proof of the old chestnut that every engineering problem can be temporarily solved with duct tape. One suspects consumers are likely to insist on perfection of that pedestrian-avoidance technology before they fully embrace autonomous vehicles.

Serious bets are being laid that consumers will accept the new technology. “An array of automobile makers including Audi, Ford, Mercedes, Lexus, Tesla and BMW are working on building self-driving capabilities into vehicles,” reports Discovery News.

No doubt engineers, investors, and executives from all of those companies will be closely watching the adventures of Uber’s cyber-car in Pittsburgh.