The world is focused on Uber’s self-driving vehicle test that began Wednesday. Everything about the technology, from the effect it might have on the service’s drivers to passengers and pedestrians, has been under the spotlight. But it’s not only shining on Uber: It’s also pointed at Pittsburgh, and naturally, Mayor Bill Peduto couldn’t be happier about the attention.
“Uber is one of many worldwide companies that have now set up shop in Pittsburgh,” Peduto told Inverse on Wednesday.
Pittsburgh might be a good stand-in for a lot of American cities: Former industrial hubs that saw a decline in manufacturing jobs and technology companies slowly beginning to fill those vacant warehouses. Meanwhile, universities have emerged as economic engines, creating more jobs as and attracting talent that might otherwise have moved to the coasts.
“We have two roaring economic turbines in this city, and they’re called the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University,” Peduto says. “The research and development that they have done over the course of the past 30 years has transformed our economy.”
So, what flies in Pittsburgh could fly in Cleveland or St. Louis or Detroit: If self-driving Ubers are accepted here, there’s a good case they’ll pick up speed elsewhere. There’s just one major difference: Driving in in the ‘Burgh is tough.
Peduto was the first person to test one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles in August, and he went for another test drive on Wednesday. He was careful to explain that the experience is smooth — the vehicles won’t go over 35 miles per hour, and they have been programmed to drive the way a human would. There are also two people, one who is ready to take the steering wheel and one who monitors everything about the vehicle with a laptop, who can intervene if needed.
That explanation is a careful response to concerns from Pittsburgh’s citizens about the safety of Uber’s tests. Peduto wants those people to know that the city partnered with Uber because it wants to keep people safe, and autonomous vehicles might be the best way to do that.
“I think that people have basically decided that they don’t believe autonomous vehicles would be safe. There are two things to think about with that. Number one, any time you enter onto an airplane, 90 percent of the time a computer is flying that airplane,” he said. “Whenever you get on an ocean liner, it’s not a captain with a wheel, it’s a computer that’s taking you across the ocean.
“The technology is there to have autonomous vehicles, but people just aren’t yet ready for it.”
An Uber spokesperson tells Inverse something similar. The company has specifically opened up the testing only to people who are comfortable with self-driving vehicles, and will not be testing the autonomous cars without a safety driver sitting behind the steering wheel. Random users won’t be asked to trust self-driving cars if they don’t want to, at least in the current stage of the pilot, which could expand in the future.
The second thing is the number of automobile-related deaths that occur every year. Like Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, Peduto believes autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of fatalities by hundreds of thousands each year. It won’t happen overnight, he said, but tests like the one happening in Pittsburgh are needed so companies are able to learn what they need to learn.
“It’s not as much a question of the technology as much as the culture, and the idea of people thinking that a car driving without someone behind the wheel is a foreign concept,” he said. “There are going to be accidents. I’ll be the first to say that. But I deal with accidents every day in my city, and I deal with accidents that take people’s lives. It’s not autonomous vehicles causing them, it’s human drivers.”
That’s why Peduto helped Uber deal with all the questions surrounding autonomous vehicle regulations and get started in Pittsburgh. Now he says that he expects Uber to double its number of employees in the city from 500 to 1,000 over the next couple of years, and to invest even more as time goes on. Besides attracting attention, that will also create jobs for the city.
“For me, on a personal level, I’m 51 years old. I lived through the ‘80s and the ‘90s when I watched all my friends move away and family move away because there were no jobs,” Peduto explained. “To see the transformation that’s occurred over the course of the last decade, and to understand that the worldwide recognition that is happening with this one announcement while knowing that’s only the tip of a much, much larger transformation, it makes me happy for my city.”