This year in self-driving car news started with Mayor Bill Peduto hoping for a better relationship with Uber and ended with policy recommendations from Carnegie Mellon University students on using autonomous vehicles to improve access to public transit.
In between, the city’s self-driving scene grew by two. Ford invested $1 billion into Pittsburgh self-driving startup Argo AI and Aurora Innovation launched, bringing the number of autonomous vehicle testers in the city up to five — Aptiv (formerly Delphi), Argo AI, Aurora Innovation, CMU and Uber.
But there’s still a way to go before we’re all multitasking as our cars drive themselves. For one thing, laws need to be created. And the technology needs to get there, too.
“What is really important to acknowledge is there are still people in the car, they are still testing, it’s the very early phases still,” said Jackie Erickson, a founding member of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network.
So what will happen with self-driving cars in 2018? The Incline talked with the companies and industry experts to make four new year’s predictions.
Prediction No. 1 — More, more, more
There’s no doubt there will be more self-driving cars on Pittsburgh roads in 2018, agreed Erickson and Professor Raj Rajkumar of the Robotics Institute at CMU.
Companies “will continue to push forward” next year, in part, because “the potential market is just too large to ignore,” Rajkumar, an self-driving vehicle expert, said in an email to The Incline.
Due to the competition, the companies rarely, if ever, share specifics on fleet size, employee numbers or even exact testing locations. Here’s what they did offer about growth in 2018:
The company plans to add up to 100 employees in Pittsburgh in 2018, which would double the current staff, per a spokesperson. Aptiv is growing its fleet of cars and still looking for a new location to move into in 2019.
Argo AI confirmed it will have more cars on the road testing and do more hiring in 2018. The Pittsburgh staff will move into a new Strip District office next year.
The company said it “will continue to pull talent from across the east coast to Pittsburgh” as it grows and will grow the fleet as needed, as well.
“There is always a continuing stream of interest from companies in working with CMU,” Rajkumar said. “Such collaborations and cooperation will certainly continue.”
The company said is always looking for “top talent” to grow its team and expects to have announcements in the new year.
Prediction No. 2 — The cars will keep evolving but won’t be totally on their own just yet
Right now, public streets are the test laboratory for self-driving cars, Erickson said. But, she said there’s still a lot of testing to be done.
“Before they get to Lawrence County, they still have to get to Lawrenceville,” Erickson said.
Uber, however, is taking one step closer to the day there isn’t a human in the front seat of the car, and going from two vehicle operators to one in some cases. It’s a change that started in 2017 and will continue to roll out in 2018.
Erickson said she expects many of the technology advancements in 2018 to be on the software side. There will be be more software validation before the cars are on the streets to build that level of confidence, she said.
Most of the self-driving systems rely on machine learning, said Michael Wagner, CEO of Edge Case Research, which works on software for autonomous vehicles. The more the cars experience, the more the car’s system learns, he said, adding that current testing is all about collecting data for machine learning to happen. The next big challenge will be figuring out how to rely on the software and systems to make common sense decisions without human help, he said.
Other challenges companies will work on in 2018? “Driving in dense urban corridors and in bad weather conditions,” Rajkumar said.
Prediction No. 3 — Lawmakers will keep discussing regulations
When it comes to legislation and policy, there still needs to be more engagement between lawmakers, developers and stakeholders, Erickson said.
Although this work started decades ago, lawmakers don’t have experience with self-driving vehicles, so they need to learn from the industry, she said, adding that industry needs to see the benefits of working with government and be willing to engage as well.
In April, Mayor Bill Peduto said he had plans for a memorandum of understanding between the city and Uber. Peduto acknowledged that he couldn’t force Uber to sign the document and a formal agreement wasn’t signed.
City leaders have, however, discussed their values and priorities with Uber, said Karina Ricks, the city’s director of mobility and infrastructure, and Alex Pazuchanics, policy coordinator for the city. Instead of holding out for a document to be reviewed, edited and signed, they said the discussion was a faster way to get on the same page and make progress, which both sides agreed has happened.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t potential for formalized city policies on self-driving cars in 2018, Ricks said, adding that she expects there to be more policy discussion in the first half of the year, including public comment.
Currently, the only state law that applies to self-driving cars is the law that says a licensed driver must be in the driver’s seat of the car. However, in 2017, two autonomous vehicle bills were introduced to add more regulations — Senate Bill 427 and House Bill 1637. Both bills were referred to their respective transportation committees, where they’ve since stayed.
The Senate bill, which included sponsors from Allegheny County, went back for revisions after a joint hearing of the state House and Senate transportation committees in March. Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the state Senate Transportation Committee, told The Incline last week that he had no comment on the bill’s status.
State Rep. Jim Marshall (R-Beaver and Butler counties), who introduced the House bill told The Incline that he’s hopeful the bill is considered by the committee next year but has “not received word that that is expected to happen yet.”
Rajkumar said he expects there to be more discussion and new legislation introduced in Harrisburg in 2018, so that the state where the technology was born and has grown will benefit from the testing and deployments. PennDOT, which led proposed self-driving vehicle policy recommendations, is planning a second Automated Vehicle Summit for April in Pittsburgh, confirmed Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT spokesperson.
On the federal level, legislation in the U.S. House has advanced the furthest. The Self Drive Act was approved by the U.S. representatives in September. On the U.S. Senate side, an autonomous vehicle bill passed committee in October, but has yet to be approved by the full Senate. Next up is a senate hearing called “Driving Automotive Innovation and Federal Policies” scheduled for Jan. 24.
Prediction No. 4 — More autonomous news
Obvious, we know, but don’t expect the news about self-driving cars and the companies developing them to go anywhere.
All five self-driving car testers teased upcoming news in 2018 in emails to The Incline, whether that’s technology advancements, new partnerships or both. For Uber, that includes having more community events at the Advanced Technologies Group headquarters in the Strip District.
Another area for partnership that could make headlines in 2018 is companies sharing data with the city. Earlier this year, City Controller Michael Lamb and Pittsburghers for Public Transit raised concerns about Uber’s data collection and ownership.
The city is making progress on getting that data, Ricks said, adding the goal is to get the data that would help with city planning and traffic flow in areas like South Side or Lawrenceville, but the city still needs to allow for Uber to have proprietary information as a private company.
When it comes to public self-driving rides in Pittsburgh, it’s still Uber only for now. In October, Aptiv acquired nuTonomy which has a partnership with Lyft, but the company told The Incline there are no plans for Lyft to use Aptiv autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. However, Argo AI along with Ford, plans to start testing a self-driving business to move people and things in 2018, but has yet to announce locations, per a Ford spokesperson.
Erickson said said she expects more community partnerships between autonomous testers and local groups, including government. She added that she expects Uber to continue working with the city and making donations because it’s ahead of the other companies in this area.
“The others will get there,” she said, but added that they are focused on development, their investors and business models for now. But as they grow, so will their social responsibility, Erickson said.