Tribune-Review reporter Aaron Aupperlee broke the news that Uber was testing autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. Here’s how he got the story and became one of the first people to catch a ride from an Uber self-driving car.
Uber has been uber secretive about its progress on self-driving cars at the Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh.
That changed Wednesday.
A few weeks ago, I wondered what Uber’s cars, outfitted with cameras, sensors and a whirling laser on top, were doing in Pittsburgh, and more importantly, why?
Driving in Pittsburgh can be a nightmare: narrow and hilly streets, parking chairs, the Pittsburgh left, merging on the Fort Duquesne Bridge, potholes and us, the drivers, who don’t have the best reputation.
So why decide to test self-driving technology here?
That’s what I planned to ask Bares on Wednesday. He told me he had a bit of news to share as well.
We sat on living room furniture in the middle of a warehouse in the Strip District. It was the former Fudgie Wudgie factory, but the smell of chocolate had faded.
Bares talked about how a drive to use robotics to make life safer brought him to Uber. He called Pittsburgh the ultimate test track. If a self-driving car can survive here, it can survive almost anywhere.
Then I asked him about the cars seen driving around town.
“You wanna go take a ride in one?” Bares asked.
We rode in the Ford Fusion hybrid for about four miles. The car drove itself a half-mile across the 31st Street Bridge. It shifted in and out of self-driving mode, beeping loudly each time, as it drove up and down River Avenue and encountered runners, cyclists, tree limbs and a goose.
We made another successful self-driving pass over the bridge and went back into manual mode to navigate the Strip District.
It drove the speed limit – 25 mph, across the bridge, which felt super slow because no one ever drives the speed limit across the bridge. The car began slowing nearly as soon as the traffic light at River Avenue came into its and our view. It negotiated turns and curves smoothly.
Bares kept his eyes, and mine too, glued to a computer on the co-pilot’s lap. The screen showed what the car’s sensors were seeing, a line drawing of the world around us. It showed other vehicles or people walking on the sidewalk. It showed buildings and traffic signs. It showed the goose, a yellow blob in the road, and identified it as something that shouldn’t be there.
Bares beamed with near fatherly pride when the car succeeded but was quick to acknowledge the challenges ahead.
When we returned to the Advanced Technology Center, Bares hopped out and had to run. I stopped him. Wasn’t there news he had to share?
That was it, he said, pointing to the car.
It was the first time Uber had shown off its self-driving technology to the media and the first time it confirmed it was testing cars in Pittsburgh. He joked that he left all that out until the end so I wouldn’t be scared to ride.
Bares left, hitching a ride to his next meeting in the self-driving Fusion, and I had my story.