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You can hail a self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh starting today

Engadget Engadget 14/09/2016 Nathan Ingraham
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Uber's self-driving cars have been spotted around Pittsburgh for a few months now, but starting today you can actually take a ride in one. The company announced that as of today, Uber's most "loyal" Pittsburgh customers might receive a ride in a self-driving Ford Fusion when they request an Uber X. As predicted, being a test subject in the company's cars will net you a free ride.

Uber made the announcement at its Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, a location founded about 18 months ago specifically to focus on autonomous vehicles. The combination of a local government friendly to some reasonable radical experimentation coupled with the nearby Carnegie Mellon University providing a pipeline of excellent engineerings made Pittsburgh a natural choice for the program, but it's still a little surprising it has cars on the road already. Google has been testing its vehicles in California for some time, but the fact that customers will actually get rides in Uber's vehicles is a major milestone.

Of course, there are plenty of limitations in Uber's Pittsburgh pilot. Only an unspecified "small number" of vehicles are being deployed to customers, and only on certain roads and routes that the company has already mapped out and tested extensively. Uber told me that those routes are some of the most popular roads being taken by its normal drivers, so it's not like these are unpopulated back roads, but you can't take an autonomous Uber anywhere you want.

There's also a safety driver behind the wheel waiting to take over the car at a moment's notice. This handy human can correct the car if it ever gets confused about what to do next, and they can also drive you off of the currently available autonomous routes to get you exactly to your destination. But if you're going far outside the range of where these cars can operate, you'll just get a normal Uber X instead; there doesn't appear to be any way to specifically request a self-driving car, so you'll just need to keep your fingers crossed. Hailing the car itself is pretty straightforward: the Uber app will show you if you're getting a self-driving car (should you want to cancel the ride or celebrate, depending on how you feel about autonomous vehicles).

The cars that Uber is deploying are Ford Fusions with a huge array of sensors on top, with more hidden around the vehicle. The main unit up top is a 360-degree LIDAR unit that shoots out some 1 million laser beams per second to make a three-dimensional scan of the world around the car. Of course, those scans aren't in color, so there's another camera right below it that recognizes colors so the car can stop at a red light. There's also a large front-facing camera array that looks for vehicles, pedestrians, lights, signs and so on.

Those are just a few of the sensors blanketing the car, and there's also onboard compute and storage units for processing data in real time. The whole thing looks pretty elaborate right now, but Uber also showed me a Volvo with a much smaller and more discreet roof unit. An Uber representative called the Ford's unit the "desktop" version and the Volvo's a "laptop," while promising we'd see the "smartphone" sized version before long.

Uber isn't the only company operating a self-driving pilot -- Delphi is testing a self-driving taxi in Singapore, and there's a self-driving bus in the Netherlands, but it hasn't yet taken passengers. As for what it's like to actually request and ride in one of Uber's autonomous vehicles? Well, we got a chance to do that, too -- read all about it here.

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