Thanks to Pittsburgh, Uber upgrades self-driving car pilot for San Francisco launch

You’re welcome, West Coast. Enjoy the Volvos.

MJ Slaby

Pittsburgh was first, but San Francisco is starting its self-driving Uber pilot with upgrades. And those improvements are largely thanks to what Uber learned here.

On Wednesday — exactly three months after the Pittsburgh pilot started — Uber announced San Francisco as the second city where users can ride in self-driving vehicles.

So what has changed?

Due to self-driving cars here (and the response), the company upgraded its vehicles and eliminated the need for users to “opt-in” before the program rolled out in San Francisco, where Uber itself first launched.

The second location gives the self-driving cars experience on streets with high-density traffic, narrow lanes and more bikers, while Pittsburgh’s lessons included bridges and weather.

Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, told the New York Times that Uber has faced no major issues in its testing in Pennsylvania so far, but did make a change prompted by our weather.

“We drove in the rain and other kinds of weather, and we’ve added lane-changing capabilities since we started in September,” Levandowski told the Times.

Uber spokesman Craig Ewer told The Incline that self-driving car tests will continue in Pittsburgh during inclement winter weather, but not if conditions are unsafe.

Desktops, laptops … and smartphones

Uber launched the Pittsburgh pilot in September with a fleet of 14 self-driving Ford Fusions. The company has since started testing self-driving Volvos, too, although they aren’t yet available to Pittsburgh riders.

The technology atop the Volvos (what make them obviously self-driving vehicles) is smaller and lighter than what’s on the Fords, Eric Meyhofer, Uber hardware team leader, said during a media event in September in PittsburghHe said the Fords were the desktop to the Volvo’s laptop and told reporters: “The next time you’re here, we’ll show you the smartphone.” While Pittsburgh Uber users are stuck with the desktop version (for now), San Francisco riders get both the desktop and the laptop. 

The Volvos in San Francisco count toward the promise of having 100 self-driving Volvos on the road by the end of 2016Ewer said Wednesday that the company expects to meet that goal soon.

Uber’s self-driving tests in San Francisco will begin with a “handful” of Volvos, according to the Associated Press, and will top out at roughly 12, reported Business InsiderEwer said Uber isn’t putting a timeline on when either city’s fleet of Volvos or Fords will grow.

It’s also worth noting that there can be up to three riders in the Volvos, according the New York Times, compared to two in the Fords. But like the cars in Pittsburgh, there will be two Uber employees in each self-driving car in San Francisco, as well.

Everyone’s invited

Pittsburgh riders no longer have to wait for an email inviting them to opt-in to the self-driving pilot, Ewer confirmed Wednesday. He said any rider requesting an UberX might get a self-driving car, but can accept or decline it before the ride.

San Francisco riders won’t start with opt-in emails. Ewer said the response in Pittsburgh showed there was excitement, and the opt-in email wasn’t needed. Uber previously declined to say how many riders opted-in during the early days of the Pittsburgh pilot.

However, unlike the rides in Pittsburgh — which were free at first, but now are the standard UberX rate — rides in San Francisco are the UberX rate from the start.

There’s still no way to specifically request a self-driving car in either city.

Few details

Outside of generally saying it’s going well, Uber officials have largely declined to provide details about the pilot here.

Following the San Francisco announcement Wednesday, Ewer declined to say how many riders have participated in the Pittsburgh self-driving pilot or how many self-driving Uber rides there have been in the last three months. He also declined to comment if the area where riders can participate in the pilot has changed since its start. In September, the testing zone included parts of the Strip District, as well as Downtown and some surrounding area.

Ewer did say the company will consider sharing numbers about the pilot at a later date. The company is also working on ways to share details about fender benders with the public, David Plouffe, Uber senior vice president of policy and strategy, previously said.

In a task force report of recommendations given to PennDOT last week regarding policies for self-driving car testing, Shari Shapiro, Uber head of Public Affairs for Pennsylvania and Delaware, said she was against providing data such as the total number of miles and hours to PennDOT. She said it wouldn’t “provide any relevant data regarding safety issues that PennDOT would be overseeing and could reveal commercially sensitive information.”

Uber’s San Francisco announcement also included the company’s defense on why it would be allowed to operate under California law, and how current laws could have “unintended consequence of slowing innovation.” Those same topics are addressed in the Pa. report — which included Shapiro’s comments — from Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force to PennDOT. Shapiro is one of two Uber employees on the task force.