What It Feels Like to Ride in a Self-Driving Uber

What It Feels Like to Ride in a Self-Driving Uber

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I experienced those self-driving ambitions firsthand this week, riding in Boron 6 for about an hour in light downtown traffic. On Wednesday, Uber rolled out a pilot program of its driverless cars to its most loyal customers in Pittsburgh, giving them the chance to hail an autonomous Uber for the first time. With the trial, a handful of test vehicles — Ford Fusions at first — will roam the streets, each car coming with a human safety engineer who has undergone training to reassure riders that the process is safe.

During my ride, most of which I spent as a passenger in Boron 6’s back seat, my safety engineer proved his worth. At various moments, he had to take over the wheel and turn through intersections where locals are known to speed. When a truck driver backed out into the road illegally, he put his foot on the brake, immediately taking control of the car.

If the safety engineer felt unsafe, he could at any time smack down a big red button in the center console — suspiciously similar to a seat ejector switch from a James Bond film — to disengage from self-driving mode. To turn the self-driving feature back on, he need only press a sleek steel button next to an embossed nameplate stamped on the console.

If I felt unsafe as a passenger, I could also request that the driver take over the vehicle, or press a button on a screen facing the back seat that would end the ride. I also monitored the infrared environment the car had rendered from the screen, a 3-D world updating in real time, and took a selfie from a camera built into the console. After the ride, Uber texts to passengers an animated GIF of the 3-D modeled route taken, along with the selfie.

But for most of the ride, I felt safe. In self-driving mode, turns and stops were near seamless, and I often had to check in with my driver to see whether he or the computer was steering the car. I did grow a bit nervous a few times when watching how close the computer drove us to cars parked on the right side of a street. Though, admittedly, that could have been my mind playing tricks on me by being more vigilant than usual about my surroundings.

In many ways, Pittsburgh is the perfect test environment for the company. The city, in essence a peninsula surrounded by mountains, is laid out in a giant triangle, replete with sharp turns, steep grades, sudden speed limit changes and dozens of tunnels. There are 446 bridges, more than in Venice. Residents are known for the “Pittsburgh left,” a risky intersection turn.

Raffi Krikorian, engineering director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, located in the city’s industrial Strip District, put it this way: “Pittsburgh is the double-black diamond of driving.”

A detail of a driverless Uber car’s monitor showing 3-D mapping of what the vehicle’s cameras see during a test drive in Pittsburgh on Monday.

Credit
Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

The challenge expressed in Mr. Krikorian’s ski analogy is one that Uber has taken to heart. From the company’s point of view, the self-driving vehicle operates more safely than any human driver.

Uber said autonomous cars can reduce vehicle-related deaths, including the nearly 40,000 that occurred in the United States last year, which was the deadliest for automotive-related deaths since 2008 and had the largest year-over-year percentage increase in 50 years, according to the National Safety Council.

There has been at least one reported and confirmed death of a driver operating a semiautonomous vehicle, that of a Tesla owner involved in a crash in May, while the car’s Autopilot system was engaged. On Wednesday, the Chinese government television news channel reported that a Tesla owner had been killed in a crash in January in which the Autopilot feature was reportedly in use.

My driverless Uber stopped far behind cars in front of us at intersections. It stayed exactly at the speed limit — 25 miles per hour where we drove — even when there was no traffic around. At one stoplight, the car waited for the green signal before turning right. The human drivers behind us were not pleased.

As my ride in Boron 6 wound down — in total, I traveled roughly 20 miles in the vehicle — it was hard not to feel like a celebrity, or perhaps more like a Martian. Other motorists gawked, and a boy on a Razor scooter gaped at me from a corner, waving to his mother to come look.

This future has been a long time coming. Advertising for self-driving cars goes at least as far back as the 1950s, with images of families in cars huddled around game boards in the back seat, playing dominoes. Some of the people involved in the Uber project have spent their entire careers working toward a day like Wednesday.

But how they will get rich from it remains unclear. Much of Uber’s success has been based on the premise that people could share their idle cars with the public by driving during their spare time. A self-driving car obviates the need for human drivers, a clear source of tension among Uber drivers today. Company executives said self-driving cars would be only one part of Uber’s business in the future, with a mix of drivers and autonomous vehicles.

And Uber isn’t the first to place big bets on self-driving cars, with Google, Apple, Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Infiniti all offering or developing autonomous features for vehicles. Some of these efforts have run into hurdles — Apple’s initiative, Project Titan, has had ups and downs.

Some of Uber’s own aims may have been overly ambitious. When the company announced its autonomous car pilot last month, the tests were expected to roll out with Volvo XC90s, sport utility vehicles that would be modified in partnership with the automaker. Uber now says the XC90s are expected to hit the road by the end of the year, but it offered no explanation for the delay, and Volvo did not respond to a request for comment.

All of these companies face an uncertain regulatory environment for driverless vehicles that could impede the rollouts of the cars across the country.

There will be delays and bugs, such as the one I encountered my first time behind the wheel when the self-driving car didn’t drive itself. That’s the whole point of the pilot test. The wealth of sensors and recording equipment will see what happens — warts and all — “so we can learn more about what makes drivers and riders comfortable and safe,” said Emily Duff Bartel, a product manager at the Advanced Technologies Center.

For me, it took about 10 minutes of troubleshooting to work through the glitches, but Boron 6 eventually turned on and started driving itself. That is, after a little bit of human intervention.

Correction: September 14, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated when the Chinese government television news channel reported that a driver of a Tesla with autonomous features had been killed in a crash. It was reported on Wednesday, not Tuesday.

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