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Uber Readies Autonomous Volvo Fleet for Pittsburgh

by Sam Chase
For Pittsburgh residents who rode in Uber's first generation of self-driving cars, the experience of being in the autonomous vehicle may not have actually felt like being in an autonomous vehicle.

This was largely due to the fact that both the driver's seat and the passenger's seat of the autonomous vehicles were occupied by vehicle technicians from the ride-sharing company when the program started last September.

It's mandated by law that at least one person be inside all self-driving cars and be able to take over in the event of a malfunction, but Uber had a second individual stationed in the passenger's seat to provide additional monitoring of its cars' autonomous systems.

While the vehicles have indeed been piloting their passengers to work, dinner or kickball practice, the actual ride experience featured more human involvement than a normal Uber ride.

That experience, though, will soon become closer to true self-driving, as Uber announced a new fleet of self-driving Volvo XC-90s that will take to Pittsburgh's streets with a variety of physical upgrades and experiential differences, including the removal of the second technician in the front seat.

"It might look very similar to the previous generation," Brian Zajac, director of hardware engineering at Uber's Advanced Technology Group, told the media at an unveiling event in Pittsburgh's Strip District on September 22. "But there's been a ton of improvements that we've made under the hood."

Those physical improvements make the car capable of a higher level of performance than previously possible and, critically, make some changes that will enable these types of autonomous vehicles easier to mass produce, when the time is right.

The cameras mounted on the roofs of the Volvos are improved, now operating at a higher resolution for an improved range of detection. By being able to detect objects at a farther distance, the vehicle is able to go faster.

The set of sensors that sits on the cars' roofs, which includes Lidar, has seen a reduction in size and an economization of physical components, which makes producing the hardware easier and less expensive. Both cameras and other sensors have improved self-cleaning mechanisms, improving their performance in adverse weather conditions -- or even on the sunniest of days.

"It's really hard for the cameras to do their job when they are covered in bug splatter, so we can handle that now," Zajac noted.

In Pittsburgh, a significant part of the riding experience has been the iPads in the back of the car. To this point, the tablets have mostly been used for selfie-taking and sharing experiences through social media.

Now the backseat iPads will provide footage of the car's surroundings that mimics how the vehicle's software perceives its environment. On the screen, objects that could affect a vehicle's actions- - traffic signs, other cars, pedestrians -- will be colored in orange, while objects that are "constants," like trees, will be colored in blue.

iPad operations in the front of the vehicle have been improved, as well. By consolidating various operations into a single tablet, Uber has enabled a single operator in the driver's seat to perform the tasks that used to require two people.

Uber's tenure in Pittsburgh has not been without controversy.

However, bumps in the road were to be expected, and both the company and city have learned a great deal about the challenges of putting new technology on the road.

With the unveiling of its new vehicles, Uber has, in a way, hit the refresh button. Round two of its self-driving operations in the Steel City will feature improvements, while also raising new questions and challenges. That's the point, after all.

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