Future Tense

Uber Is Rolling Out Driverless Cars in Pittsburgh. Each One Has Two Drivers.

An Uber self-driving Ford roams the streets of Pittsburgh this spring.

Foo Conner/Flickr

Ordering an Uber in Pittsburgh is about to be a little like buying a chocolate bar and praying for the Golden Ticket. Bloomberg Businessweek reports Thursday morning that Uber will integrate self-driving cars into its operations in downtown Pittsburgh later this month. Uber customers will be slotted into the few driverless cars at random, and those trips will be free.

Max Chafkin writes that Uber is “crossing an important milestone” with the rollout, and it’s true, in a sense, that the fares represent the first commercial application of self-driving cars in the U.S. But it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds—the Pittsburgh initiative just adds a public component to an ongoing beta test.

The experience, which is really a lottery for a ride-along with Uber engineers, will go something like this, Chafkin writes:

“…professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening.”

It sounds pretty similar to what Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Aaron Aupperlee experienced in an Uber prototype back in May. Uber’s cars drive themselves kind of like my bicycle drives itself—safely, but only if a pair of hands is ready to take control at a moment’s notice.

That’s pretty cool, and I’d be thrilled to see what it’s like. But I don’t think this will be remembered as a seminal moment in the race for driverless cars.

Like at the Chocolate Factory, you’ll be experiencing some advanced but imperfect technology. Uber has had autonomous vehicles supervised by driver’s seat engineers on the streets of Pittsburgh, home to the company’s Advanced Technologies Center, for months. The difference is that now you’re allowed to watch from inside the car instead of from the sidewalk.

You’re not supposed to talk to the safety drivers in these Ubers. Will you be able to pump 105.9 The X when you’re heading over the Roberto Clemente Bridge, potentially drowning out the chimes that tell the drivers to take control?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has divided automation in cars into four levels, and it seems we’ll be spending a long time between Level 3 (cars that require a supervisor) and Level 4 (totally unoccupied). Or, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick put it to Chafkin, “Nobody has set up software that can reliably drive a car safely without a human.”

Oh well.

The cars in question will be souped-up Volvo XC90 SUVs, equipped with cameras, lasers, radar and GPS. By the end of the year, Volvo is supposed to have delivered a hundred cars to Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet. The Swedish automaker is a good first partner for Uber, as Kalanick tacitly acknowledges in a press release, because the automaker’s reputation for safety will help assuage concerns about the new tech. And, as the company’s engineering director Raffi Krikorian assures Businessweek, something will go wrong sooner or later.

The more important news of the day might be that Uber has also purchased self-driving truck start-up Otto, whose co-founder Anthony Levandowski will take control of Uber’s driverless operation. Kalanick describes him as a “brother from another mother,” and told Chafkin the acquisition was born on a series of late-night walks the two men took through San Francisco. The acquisition adds a number of high-profile Silicon Valley engineers to Uber’s driverless team—and increases the chances that someday in the future you might get into a driverless taxi in Pittsburgh that doesn’t have a driver inside.