Uber starts self-driving car pickups in Pittsburgh (Part 1)

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【Summary】Uber starts self-driving car pickups in Pittsburgh

Shelly    Oct 23, 2016 8:00 PM PT
Uber starts self-driving car pickups in Pittsburgh (Part 1)

Beginning today, a select group of Pittsburgh Uber users will get a surprise the next time they request a pickup: the option to ride in a self driving car.

The announcement comes a year-and-a-half after Uber hired dozens of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's robotics center to develop the technology.

Uber gave a few members of the press a sneak peek Tuesday when a fleet of 14 Ford Fusions equipped with radar, cameras and other sensing equipment pulled up to Uber's Advanced Technologies Campus (ATC) northeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

During my 45-minute ride across the city, it became clear that this is not a bid at launching the first fully formed autonomous cars. Instead, this is a research exercise. Uber wants to learn and refine how self driving cars act in the real world. That includes how the cars react to passengers — and how passengers react to them.

"How do drivers in cars next to us react to us? How do passengers who get into the backseat who are experiencing our hardware and software fully experience it for the first time, and what does that really mean?" said Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber ATC.

If they are anything like me, they will respond with fascination followed by boredom.

The experience

It began when an Uber employee handed me a phone so I could hail a ride from the company's app. A minute later, a Ford Fusion rolled up. Uber engineers occupied the two front seats, so I took a spot behind the driver.

Once nestled into my seat, I selected a button on a tablet positioned in the back of the car to signal I was ready to go. The tablet displayed a live view of the car's vision: blue for the road, red for objects. Our driving path took us from the ATC building in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood through downtown and over the 9th Street bridge to the North Shore. The steering wheel turned on its own, as if possessed by a ghost.

The engineer in the driver's seat spent the entire ride watching the road. He hovered his hands over the wheel and foot over the pedal. Whenever a stopped vehicle blocked an entire lane, he toggled back into manual mode to switch lanes and drive around — an action Uber's self driving cars will not yet take. The second engineer sat in the passenger's seat with a laptop open. On a normal trip, he would have been taking notes about the ride.

I had a flurry of butterflies the first time the car encountered an obstacle — an SUV backing into the road. You don't notice how many unexpected incidents occur during a routine drive until you ask a robot to take the wheel. While we were passing over the bridge–and self driving cars struggle to position themselves on bridges to begin with–we came upon a large truck parked in our lane. The driver manually swapped lanes, right as a city worker darted out from in front of the truck and a banner dropped down near the front of our car.

I don't know how the car would have reacted to the man or banner had it been in autonomous mode, but there were plenty of other instances to see it respond to its surroundings. It stopped behind a bus making a pickup, and again when the bus turned right. It read traffic light colors and stopped for one yellow light, while driving through a different yellow light. It obeyed traffic laws. It was so normal it got a little bit boring. The butterflies disappeared quickly.

Then the engineers let me "drive" the car back to the Uber campus. Once a light turned blue on the dash, I could hit a silver button in the center console to go autonomous. Braking, accelerating or hitting a red button brought driving back under my control. I took over once to maneuver around a stopped van.

It's an unusual balance to focus on your surroundings while not having to do anything. It's tempting to feel at ease and think about something else — maybe even drop your hands into your lap. I can see why the area between autonomous stopping and parking and fully autonomous riding is fuzzy.

I swapped seats with one of the engineers again and we took another loop around the city, this time through Pittsburgh's busy Strip District. The road was cramped with parked cars. Vans stopped and started as they made deliveries at the markets and restaurants lining the road. It nudged slightly to the left when it noticed a parked car jutting out a bit too far, but otherwise rolled confidently down the street. A white SUV didn't seem to mind finding itself sandwiched between us and another self-driving car, identifiable by its distinctive Lidar unit spinning on its roof.

Later, we sat in traffic on yet another bridge. The car started and stopped as we crawled forward a few feet at a time. Sometimes it was gentle, sometimes it came to a lurching halt. It felt a lot like riding in a car with a human driver, right down to the Uber map telling us we had reached our destination.

(Part 1 end) 

resource from: Techcrunch

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