Driving a driverless Uber: What I learned (and what was scary)

Sitting in the driver’s seat of an Uber self-driving car, I’d become the city’s most responsible, by-the-book driver.

I’m not a bad driver. I err on the side of caution.

But as the autonomous Ford Fusion crossed the 31st Street Bridge without my foot on the gas pedal, my first thought was, “Wow, this seems slow. What’s the speed limit?”

And as the car turned onto and off of the bridge, I thought, “Is that how early I’m supposed to use my turn signal? What did driver’s education say about that?”

Uber’s self-driving cars start to pick up invited passengers who opt in starting today. During the media preview on Tuesday, I had a turn as a passenger and as a “driver.”

The takeaway?

The robot cars follow the rules — even to a fault.

Take no chances

On its own, the autonomous car doesn’t go over the speed limit or switch lanes to pass slower vehicles. 

It breaks hard for yellow lights if the timing is unclear.

It doesn’t Pittsburgh left.

And if there’s any doubt, the Uber employee in the driver’s seat, dubbed a “safety driver,” is quick to take over and avoid near misses with pedestrians. (The safety driver is paired with an Uber engineer in the front of all driverless cars.)

Middle of the road

In the role of passenger, the rule-abiding put me at ease.

As the car crossed the Rachel Carson Bridge, I looked nervously out a window thinking about how close the car was to the railing. But the car was perfectly positioned in its lane.

And as we approached an intersection, I saw slick spots in the road. Again, I thought maybe something would be different given the criticism of the self-driving cars in rain and snow. But nothing.

The car turns on its own, and it can adapt to the presence of pedestrians and to people opening the doors of parallel-parked cars — as long as it can stay in its lane. If a pedestrian or parked vehicle requires the car to move from one lane to another, that’s on the safety driver.

Uber's unveil of driverless cars to Pittsburgh passengers.

Time to jump in the driver's seat.

Jared Wickerham/Wick Photography

MJ, take the wheel

When the offer came for me to “drive,” I was nervous, but didn’t want to miss my chance. As the car moved on its own, I focused on striking the right balance.

Just the slightest touch of the brake or gas pedal or hard grip on the steering wheel causes the car to switch from self-driving mode to driver controlled. The switch comes complete with a ding noise to alert the rest of the car’s passengers since the “driver” already has hands lightly on the wheel.

After accidentally tapping the gas and switching modes, I spent the remainder of my “driving” time with my foot flexed upward and concentrating on a light grip on the steering wheel.

I felt surprisingly calm as the wheel turned on its own. And as someone new to Pittsburgh, it was also nice to know I only had to react if needed and not also worry about directions, because the car knew better than I did about where to go.

Glitch in the homestretch

But as the ride was ending, the car came to a four-way stop for the first time. Its programmed delay before moving prompted the next car to move out of turn.

That movement reset the car’s delay before turning, causing several annoyed drivers to turn out of order before I took over to make the turn back to Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center.

So I guess robot or not, “drivers” will always annoy other drivers.

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