Seemingly out of the blue, Uber is introducing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Steeltown residents don’t seem too worried, but this isn’t Silicon Valley where seeing Google autonomous vehicles is de rigeur. I might plan a trip to the Allegheny just to try one–and you should consider it if you get a chance. Here’s why:
“It’s not our role to throw up regulations or limit companies like Uber,” said Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor, who said that Uber planned to use about 100 modified Volvo sport utility vehicles for the passenger trials. The vehicles will also have a human monitor behind the wheel. “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.”
Pittsburgh gets it. They get the American ideal of liberty and innovation. While places like Austin think they’re being trendy, hip and liberal as hell because they want to subject Uber and Lyft drivers to onerous background checks, Pittsburgh is about to be the focus of a real breakthrough in transportation.
It’s simple: the more “liberal” a place calls itself, the less liberty really exists. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker tacked on a $0.20 cent fee to each ride to help taxi drivers who have been hurt by innovation. The fee can’t be passed on the consumers. But of course, we all pay.
The American experience is all about being able to do something because there’s no law against it, not having to ask “mother, may I?” for every new invention. That concept only gets lip service in most “progressive” places, where you can try something new only until regulators inevitably decide the idea might be unfair to people it disrupts, and proceed to kill it.
Uber started out all about the driver. Make a few extra bucks driving drunks around at 2 a.m. with your own car. Then it became about hauling people to and from the airport or train station. Except at Boston‘s Logan Airport, where you can pick up your sister, but not an Uber or Lyft customer. Because taxi operators pay for the privilege, and we must stop progress.
Progressives are really only for progress when it suits them.
Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission granted two-year experimental licenses to both Uber and Lyft, which now have to pay fees for curbside pickup, and drivers are sometimes inconvenienced in the way rides are prioritized, but at least they allow it.
I’m all for self-driving cars. I own a couple of Subarus, and they both have Eyesight technology, a dual-camera and sensor system that can control the speed, braking, and even steering. It’s one step from what Tesla is doing with their “Autopilot” traffic-aware adaptive cruise control. The Subaru system has saved me from more then one wreck when people have cut me off, and makes short work Atlanta’s infamous traffic. (I, however, do not sleep in my car while it drives.)
The only way autonomous driving technology will bridge the five-nine’s barrier is by logging miles. Five-nines means 0.00001, or 100th of one percent. That’s the experience curve for making something human-reliable: Drive 2 million miles and have 20 miles of “not sure” moments. Google has been reporting on their experience for over a year. They’ve experienced more collisions in manual mode than autonomous mode.
It’s true that self-driving Uber cars will cause many drivers to have to find other pursuits, but in the end, it will be safer, more environmentally friendly, and easier on cities and customers. Plus, it’s the first step in logging enough miles to implement truly autonomous cars that you can own–or share.
I’m no pie-in-the-sky utopian, but if my wife and I could make due with one car versus two, we would. If she could drive it to work and then send it home for me (or I could summon it) as I work from home, how wonderful would that be? If we needed two cars, if we could borrow our friends’ car like getting a Kindle book on loan, it would cut down on pollution, fuel use, and parking spaces.
Imagine going to the mall and dispatching your car to the furthest “autonomous” parking lot with its own access road, and then summoning the car to get you when you’re done (or need to load your bags and continue shopping). This is only a year or two away, but we need to get past liberal regulators to make automakers comfortable that they won’t be regulated out of the market.
Kudos to Pittsburgh. I might just plan a visit there to tip my hat in person.