Self-driving vehicles

You’ve been riding in self-driving Ubers for a year. Here’s what Peduto wants to see in year 2.

The mayor is optimistic about Pittsburgh’s five self-driving car companies’ commitment to the community.

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The Incline
MJ Slaby

Mayor Bill Peduto is optimistic.

It’s been a year since Uber launched its pilot program allowing Pittsburghers to ride in self-driving cars. And in that time, the mayor’s gone from outspoken advocate of self-driving cars to publicly criticizing Uber — to now moving forward.

In “2016, our relationship with Uber was strictly take. There was no give back,” Peduto told The Incline in a one-on-one interview Tuesday. But he said the company made changes in 2017 and is moving in a positive direction, both locally and on a national level.

Local changes include Uber’s commitment to partnering with the city on autonomous vehicle initiatives and giving back through local nonprofits. With the number of self-driving vehicle companies in Pittsburgh up to five, more and more are starting to tout plans to be involved in similar ways.

But with no way to mandate partnerships, how is Peduto making sure those plans become a reality? The companies have to understand they are using the public right of way as testing grounds and how to be civically minded, Peduto said adding, “There are give-backs, not just takes.”

Year to year

Starting with Uber’s “most loyal customers,” the company began its public pilot allowing rides in self-driving cars Sept. 14, 2016. Since then, the fleet has gone from Ford Fusions to Volvo X90s that now go to and from nine Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

“[The Uber pilot program] has allowed us to reemerge on the global stage,” Peduto said. “There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t receive an invitation to discuss urban mobility and autonomous vehicles in a foreign country.”

But earlier this year, the mayor looked back on the city’s relationship with Uber and felt the company had missed the mark, not just in Pittsburgh, but nationally. He’d reached a point where he only hoped that 2017 would be better. 

And so far, he said, there have been positive changes.

“With the relationship with the company, it’s remained consistently good with the local autonomous center,” Peduto said.

He said Eric Meyhofer — who was named head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group in April and went to Uber from Carnegie Mellon University — “has a vested interest in the city.” Peduto added the company has been doing a much better job of communicating with the city and reaching out to and donating to local nonprofits, such as donating $10,000 in free rides to the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.

But he stressed that involvement should go one step further than donations, and be “more than just writing checks,” such as utilizing the Uber platform for volunteering and to benefit the civic good.

Uber spokesman Craig Ewer stressed the company’s dedication to the city, saying via email that “Pittsburgh is a special place for our company, and we’re committed to supporting the community however we can.”

In addition to the Women’s Center, he also listed BikePGH and Mothers Against Drunk Driving as organizations Uber is working with. Earlier this month, Uber hosted an event for participants in BikeFest at the ATG, and over the holidays, the company worked with MADD for an awareness campaign including discount codes to prevent drunk driving.

“Giving back to Pittsburgh is important, and we’re excited to unveil more of these initiatives in the coming months,” Ewer wrote.

Uber spokesperson Sarah Abboud previously told The Incline about the company’s community outreach, including hosting events at the ATG. “We want to give back to the community thats letting us use their roadways,” she said in August.

Peduto said he expects more from all of the self-driving car companies in Pittsburgh — not just Uber. He wants to see civically minded partnerships from the five self-driving car companies here — Argo AI, Aurora Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University, Delphi and Uber — and the automakers that are their partners.

“Because of that cluster, now there’s much more of an opportunity to start putting together the ways that this industry can help cities,” Peduto said.

And that means more talks of partnerships.

“We will reach back out to all of them,” he said.

Civic responsibility

To create partnerships with self-driving car companies, Peduto is relying on a sense of civic duty.

After all, he said, “You have to remember that the factories that these companies are using belong to the people.”

Those factories? Roads and public right of way.

“With that comes a responsibility back to the public,” he said.

One way to start though, is a conversation with not just local, but national experts in the field, he said, adding that there are still plans for guidelines by the end of the year.

And working with those experts and related organizations, as well as mayors across the country and the world will help put those expectations in place.

So what would Peduto like to see from the autonomous vehicle industry in the next year?

  • A focus on first mile, last mile strategy to increase mobility, by helping people get from their homes to public transit and then from public transit to their destination.
  • Partnerships between the companies and public transportation
  • A continued investment to bring “hundreds more jobs and hundreds of millions of additional investment in the next year.”
  • Partnerships between Pittsburgh and cities like San Fransisco, Oakland, Austin and Detroit, as well as cities overseas like Oslo, Norway and cities in Singapore

“Seeing what we’ve been able to do over the course of the year, I’m optimistic that there will be a positive outcome,” Peduto said. “But it’s not going to happen in a year or two, it’s going to take some time.”