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Uber's self-driving car in Pittsburgh | © Uber
Uber's self-driving car in Pittsburgh | © Uber
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Self-Driving Uber Cars Hit the Streets of Pittsburgh

Picture of Peter Ward
Tech Editor
Updated: 15 September 2016
Self-driving cars are here. This week, Uber launched a small fleet of autonomous cars in the Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh, making a proposition that once seemed the height of science fiction a reality.

Uber has been working on its self-driving car project in Pittsburgh for a year and a half, and has now made a pilot program available to its “most loyal customers” in the city. The self-driving Uber won’t show up on their own though: a safety driver will be present, just in case of bad weather, malfunctions or, presumably, a Terminator-style rebellion against the human race

“Of course, we can’t predict exactly what the future will hold. But we know that self-driving Ubers have enormous potential to further our mission and improve society: reducing the number of traffic accidents, which today kill 1.3 million people a year; freeing up the 20 percent of space in cities currently used to park the world’s billion plus cars; and cutting congestion, which wastes trillions of hours every year,” the company wrote in a blog post.

Pittsburgh was reportedly chosen as the pilot city for the project due to its notoriously tight streets, which are difficult for cars to maneuver. The director of Uber Advanced Technologies Center, Raffi Krikorian, told the Financial Times that “if we really can master driving in Pittsburgh, we feel we have a good chance to master it in most other cities in the world.”

Uber’s plans for self-driving vehicles don’t stop here. In August the company bought Otto, a startup which focuses on building self-driving systems for trucks already on the roads. In the same month, Uber also announced a deal with Swedish automaker Volvo to develop autonomous driving cars. The vehicles will be manufactured by Volvo and used by Uber. Both companies contributed a combined $300 million to the project.

Although only four cars will be on the roads of Pittsburgh during the pilot, Uber plans to have driverless taxis on the roads “24 hours a day” at some point in the future.

Self-driving controls | © Uber
Self-driving controls | © Uber

Uber and Volvo are not the only companies interested in self-driving cars. Apple is reportedly working on ‘Project Titan,’ while Google has been testing its self-driving cars in different places in the U.S. all year. Established automakers like Audi, Ford, General Motors, and Honda are also developing autonomous cars.

While Uber’s project may be the most high profile taxis to hit the streets, it’s not the first. In August, a company called nuTonomy began a limited trial of autonomous taxis in Singapore. “The trial represents an extraordinary opportunity to collect feedback from riders in a real-world setting, and this feedback will give nuTonomy a unique advantage as we work toward deployment of a self-driving vehicle fleet in 2018,” said nuTonomy CEO and Founder Karl Iagnemma.