Uber to test semi-autonomous taxis in Pittsburgh. Too soon?

While some automotive experts say that Uber's plans to test semi-autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh, others say that the company is just following in the footsteps of innovators across time. 

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters/File
A London cab driver holds up a sign outside Downing Street during a protest against Uber on Whitehall in central London, Britain in February.

The city of Pittsburgh, Penn., is getting ready for a peculiar invasion. Soon, hurried workers and tourists could be hitching a ride from Uber’s futuristic semi-autonomous taxi service in partnership with Volvo.

The ride-sharing company has plans to carry out a beta test of its driverless car service in the city, but driverless vehicle and safety experts disagree on the role of regulation in the driverless car industry and the safety of the general public.

“Putting a passenger or two in the backseat of a driverless car doesn’t change the risk analysis,” says Bryant Walker Smith, the chair of the Planning Task Force for the On-Road Automated Vehicle Standards Committee of the Society of Automotive and Aerospace Engineers.

Uber is just one of a handful of companies that are exploring driverless cars, including Google, which is working on a driverless ride-sharing service to rival Uber’s. Yet, while Uber is just steps ahead of its rivals, the company’s innovation is miles ahead of transportation regulations, a factor that concerns some safety experts.

At present, the state of Pennsylvania lacks even basic laws to regulate semi-autonomous vehicles. Uber did not even have to ask for regulatory permission to perform its planned beta test, although the company chose to work with local regulators prior to rolling out the program.

Pittsburgh is not the only city that will see road testing for driverless cars. A number of established companies, start-ups, and researchers have filed for authorization to test driverless vehicles on roads in Nevada and California.

Self-driving Volvos could be coming to London’s busy streets by 2017, with proposed legislation by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, potentially allowing autonomous cars on the country’s roads by 2020.

"We realise that customers and traffic are very different around the world, so we think it's important to test in different environments to be prepared for the future, and London is a very, very large city where people spend lots of time in traffic jams, so we think it's an ideal place to continue learning," Erik Coelingh, a senior technical leader for safety and driver support at Volvo, told ZDNet in April.

Some safety experts, however, have reservations, especially after a driver was killed while using Tesla's Autopilot feature in May.

"They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs," Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said of Uber's Pittsburgh plans. "Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car."

Some are worried about the effect inclement weather or Pittsburgh's many bridges could have on Uber. Others say that Uber's GPS systems could be vulnerable to jamming, or that the vehicles' safety systems may not recognize the human gestures of crossing guards or police officer directing traffic.

Yet, according to Mr. Smith, between the in-car safety supervisor, the external safety supervisor at Uber, and the car's many safety features, the company's beta testing program could be even safer than traditional autos.

And although there are currently few federal or state safety regulations, Smith does not expect that the federal government will have to greatly modify existing automotive regulations, or issue new ones in short order.

"Uber has gotten a lot of attention, but I don't think that it is a big deal legally, or technically, or safety wise," says Smith, "all sorts of automotive technologies are introduced before there are regulations to handle them."

According to Smith, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was expected to issue guidance for state policy, developers, and regulatory tools by July, but it has not yet distributed its recommendations.

Despite reservations, some are excited about Pittsburgh's role in the driverless revolution.

"I'm 51 years old. I have never seen my city grow," said Mayor William Peduto. "If we tried to stop time and did not want to be a leader in an industry that will forever change transportation over the next decade, we would be losing this opportunity to another city."

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