Driverless cars are coming to a street near you

Uber has announced that it is launching a fleet of autonomous cars on the streets of Pittsburgh. What does this mean for us as passengers, for the design of the city, and for those who make a living as Uber drivers?

Let’s start by going to Pittsburgh — and talk with two people overseeing the Uber rollout.

An Uber driverless car in Pittsburgh.
An Uber driverless car in Pittsburgh.

Roger Cohen is policy director, and Kurt Meyers is deputy secretary of driver and vehicle services, at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

They say Uber has been testing driverless cars on the streets of Pittsburgh since the early spring, and Carnegie Mellon University has been a leader in driverless car technology.

“The Uber announcement that was recently made doesn’t change the testing that they have been doing. It simply adds a passenger to the process,” Cohen said.

In addition, Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain, complicated streets and shifting weather patterns offer the right conditions to test the cars.

The cars use GPS, lasers, radars and cameras to navigate the streets, meaning the actual street infrastructure and road markings won’t need to be upgraded, Meyers said.

These driverless cars are being rolled out while regulations to control them are not yet in place.

A Google driverless car
A Google driverless car

“Essentially, our existing law is silent on autonomous vehicles,” as long as there is a driver behind the steering wheel, Cohen said. Uber plans to use a driver and observer in the front two seats of their cars during this testing phase.

While other states have passed regulations to restrict autonomous vehicle testing, a Pennsylvania task force is working now to “ensure that we develop flexible policies that allow the industry to develop, balanced with the safety issues,” Meyers said.

This patchwork approach to regulations could mean a confusing ride for driverless car companies and passengers. Pennsylvania is waiting for federal guidelines from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Meyers said.

“There are certainly things that need to be left to the individual states as to how they’ll deal with that testing in their individual locations,” Meyers said.

Now, what do Uber drivers in Pittsburgh think of this? Do they fear being replaced by robots?

Bill Steigerwald is a former newspaper reporter and columnist. For more than a year, he’s been driving for Uber to pay the bills while working on a book.

“I have no fear that I will be replaced by anything that resembles a computer or any automated setup, especially in a city like Pittsburgh,” Steigerwald said. “It has hills, hollows, rivers, bridge,s bad intersections, horrible traffic design, crazy streets, hillside, slopes with houses draped along them, congested traffic… So for an Uber ridesharing car to replace all drivers is absolutely absurd. It could not happen in a city like this.”

We’ve been hearing about Uber’s new driverless fleet of cars in Pittsburgh, and whether human driving will become a thing of the past. Critics say neither the infrastructure nor the cars will be ready for prime time anytime soon. Nick Bilton begs to differ. He’s a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and wrote a column called “The Looming Threat To Uber’s Plan For World Domination.”

“I do feel very bad for people that are going to lose their jobs as a result of driverless cars,” Bilton said. “And it’s everything from 3.5 million truckers who make a living transporting goods across America, to the millions of taxi drivers and Uber drivers and so on.”

But, Bilton said, cars in the future are going to be “an experience.” Passengers might be able to hail a car with a treadmill inside, or a bar, or an office, or a bed to take a nap.

In addition, driverless cars will reduce the traffic fatalities on our roads, Bilton said. “There are 1.3 million people that die every single year in a car, and 90 percent of those accidents are the result of human error. In America it’s 33,000 people and 81 percent of those are human error. I think we’re giving humans too much credit when we talk about them being behind the wheel of a car.”