Don't miss our awards deadlines

Uber has set its sights on the Steel City to test self-driving cars: here’s why


As a native Pittsburgher who has spent the last 16 years in varying business and technology roles around the city, Pittsburgh is the perfect place to test autonomous vehicles, and Uber agrees. They will start testing their self-driving technology with Pittsburgh passengers in the coming weeks.

Why Pittsburgh? That is a question that people outside of the city have been asking since the announcement.

The most apparent answer for Uber is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Since 2007, when a CMU team led by Red Whittaker won the DARPA Urban Challenge, CMU has been regarded as a leader in robotics and autonomous technology. CMU has since been named by U.S. News & World Report as the top Computer Science program in the country. This has encouraged companies like Apple, Disney, Intel and Microsoft to set up shop within CMU’s Collaborative Innovation Center and companies like Google and Facebook to open offices in close proximity to the university. The latest company to join the party is Uber. They opened the Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) last year in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, conveniently near the CMU National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC). Uber recently moved to a new location and took over 40 NREC researchers and staff with them.

As Uber assesses its self-driving technology, they, like many developers know that the best way to test the software is to throw every possible scenario at the algorithm. This may be the real reason why Pittsburgh is a perfect proving ground for Uber to bring its autonomous rides cars to the Steel City. The terrain and weather will throw down the gauntlet for Uber’s software. Because of the hills and rivers, Pittsburgh’s infrastructure includes numerous bridges and tunnels. These have proved difficult for autonomous vehicles to handle. Tourists and newcomers to the city are constantly frustrated by the lack of a true grid system and the winding roads that don’t seem to make sense. Four distinct seasons create all types of weather conditions to navigate and the snow and ice lead to potholes and road construction. This ensures that no route stays constant throughout the year and creates plenty of scenarios for Uber to test.

A great example of how difficult it is to navigate our roads is the path from just south of the city on Route 19 to just north of the city on Route 28. This includes merging onto I-376 and getting to the left across four lanes of heavy traffic. You then proceed through the Fort Pitt tunnel and are deposited over the Monongahela River onto the Fort Pitt Bridge, which requires you to merge left again across two more lanes. You spend a split second above dry land and Point State Park before crossing the Allegheny river on the Fort Duquesne bridge only to merge seconds later to the right across two lanes onto I-279. If you have navigated this stretch successfully, you will take your exit and merge onto Route 28. This all happens in a span of three miles while trying not to enjoy the scenic view that has dubbed Pittsburgh the only city in America with an entrance. If Uber can do this with autonomous technology, and no driver intervention, then they can claim a huge victory.

This is clearly an opportunity for Uber, but what are the benefits for Pittsburgh and why has the city embraced this technology? All of the same challenges that make it a great test for Uber have plagued Pittsburgh transportation through the years. The cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure in this terrain has limited public transportation options.

As a “city of neighborhoods,” there are disperse pockets of activity across Pittsburgh that make it difficult for traditional taxi services to thrive. This makes owning a car a necessity and has discouraged the younger population from settling here. Uber has opened the door in Pittsburgh for on-demand transportation. Using big data, analytics and machine learning, they can create an algorithm that puts their vehicles in hot spots and ensures that users do not have to wait long for a ride. This gives Pittsburghers the opportunity to explore more of the city without the fear of being stranded.

As autonomous vehicle adoption increases, there is a huge opportunity for marketing and advertising. The average commute in the United States is more than 25 and a half minutes each way. By removing the stress of operating a vehicle, autonomous technology will have created a captive audience for over 50 minutes each day. Instead of navigating bridges and tunnels, Pittsburghers will be navigating mobile browsers and TV screens. Uber knows who they are, where they’re from and where they’re going. That makes Uber best suited to deliver the right message at the right time to these captive consumers. And for us in the marketing communications and advertising space, it gives even more opportunities to connect with these audiences.

Brad Powell is SVP-director of digital at Pittsburgh-based agency Gatesman+Dave

By continuing to use The Drum, I accept the use of cookies as per The Drum's privacy policy