In an industrial corner of Pittsburgh’s Strip district lies a quiet alley lined with rusted steel beams. They support an old railway bridge that hints at this steel town’s past. But tucked at the end of the alley, hidden from the view of passers-by, sits a gleaming research centre that points to a rather different future, one in which self-driving taxi fleets will have revolutionised urban transportation.
This is the vision of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, a research facility that has become a central focus for the San Francisco-based transportation company as it tries to develop driverless cars. The effort began just 18 months ago, and Uber has spared no expense in its aggressive effort to build the best autonomous car research program in the world — from scratch.
Some of this lavish ambition is on display in the building itself, with a giant floor-to-ceiling glass frontage overlooking the Allegheny River — the company spent some $30m on remodelling it during the past year, according to permit records.
The remodelling costs pale in comparison to what Uber is spending on its autonomous vehicle programme overall. Uber has redoubled its focus on self-driving vehicles following the sale of its Chinese business, a unit that had been heavily lossmaking and was demanding on the time of Travis Kalanick, Uber’s hard-driving chief executive.
A month ago, Uber paid more than $600m in equity to buy a driverless truck start-up, Otto, whose team included leading Google engineers. And this week, Uber launched a driverless testing programme in Pittsburgh that will ferry passengers around the city, although a human “driver” will still be at the wheel to take control if needed. Uber also has a partnership with Volvo , in which the companies are prepared to invest a combined $300m into driverless research.
Mr Kalanick says unequivocally that Uber’s mission — providing transportation to everyone, everywhere — is not possible without autonomous vehicles. After raising more than $15bn in equity and debt, making it the best capitalised start-up in Silicon Valley, Uber is prepared to spend heavily to reach its goal.
“Self-driving technology means saving lives, and low-cost transportation that is accessible to the masses in a way the world has never seen,” Mr Kalanick told the Financial Times last month. “More and more of our cities are going to get wired up,” he added, pointing to how driverless technology will change the urban environment.
However, Uber’s bold investments in autonomous research have not been without controversy. As it was establishing the Advanced Technologies Center last year, Uber poached a third of the staff — 40 people — from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, a mass exit that sent shockwaves through the university.
Although Uber has since tried to mend the rift by endowing a professorship at Carnegie Mellon University, the incident still rankles. Andrew Moore, dean of computer science at CMU, recalls that the university had to work quickly to keep the Robotics Institute strong. “The thing that was hardest about that time was that people would meet me and greet me as if someone in my family was really ill,” he says, adding that the Robotics Institute has now recovered. Within the department, some joked at the time that it was a “hostile takeover”.
Others in the industry question how far Uber’s self-driving technology has really developed in just 18 months. Uber started real-world testing of its autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh five months ago, which pales in comparison with the years of tests performed by Alphabet in California, with its self-driving cars.
Uber’s cannot yet execute moves like changing lanes, requiring the human driver to intervene if a lane is blocked. At present, the autonomous cars do not travel faster than 35 miles per hour, although Uber is planning to increase this and to start making trips to Pittsburgh’s airport, which includes driving on a highway, “within weeks”.
The company has revealed few details about the sensors and software it uses to guide its driverless cars. The Ford Fusions that were launched in the pilot test this week are outfitted with 20 cameras and seven lasers, as well as GPS and radar units. Each car steers itself using a detailed three-dimensional map that Uber has developed itself, using landmarks and context to identify its position.
Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who works on autonomous vehicles, said that from a technical standpoint, what Uber is doing now is similar to what Google has been doing for many years. “Because the technology is so complex, I do expect it will take some time to catch up.”
He added that Uber’s vast suite of sensors had been a bit of a surprise. “It looks very much like overkill,” he said. “Like they were not sure what would be needed, what would not be needed.”
Uber’s self-driving technology is still being worked out. Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, admits that “this is early days for us in a lot of ways”. The challenges ahead include reading human intention — such as whether a pedestrian is about to cross a street — and preparing for rarer incidents, such as animals darting across the road.
Despite the technical challenges, the ambition of Uber’s self-driving programme has thrown down the gauntlet for Alphabet, which has yet to figure out how it will use the driverless cars it has been developing. Alphabet has been piloting a carpooling system among users of its mapping app, Waze, and has looked at launching a separate app for transportation. But it has stopped short of outlining how it might put its driverless fleet to commercial use.
The nascent competition between Uber and Alphabet has become significant enough to force David Drummond, a top Alphabet executive, to resign from the Uber board last month. The step was striking because Alphabet is one of Uber’s biggest shareholders, after making a large investment in an early fundraising round.
Recently Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, said he was preparing to join the fray, and outlined a long-term vision for the company that included a shared fleet of Tesla vehicles accessible to passengers through an app.
While Google still retains a technological edge in driverless technology, Uber’s access to customers could prove a boon in the long run. By opening up its self-driving test fleet to real passengers this week, Uber has capitalised on one of the great strengths of its autonomous programme: a ready pool of riders who are prepared to hop in an Uber car at a moment’s notice, whether there is a human in the driver’s seat or not.