So, I love Uber—don’t you? (Please say yes, because Uber-driving is currently my husband’s full-time job.) With Uber, a driving service that offers cheap, easy access to local rides, the fares are cheap, the drivers are local and pretty cool (though I say it myself…), and they get you where you need to go safely, or Uber pays for it.
But tell me… how safe would you feel in an Uber car minus the driver?
Get Ready. It’s Happening.
Uber has introduced a self-driving car (which I’ll now affectionately call an “SDC”). You’ve seen Minority Report, and it didn’t seem to terrify you then. But what happens when that cinematic fantasy becomes a reality? Scared now?
Well, no need to fear: Uber has built a fake town filled with fake people (mannequins, of course, not life-sized Barbies or zombies) for these self-driving cars to “practice” their driving. The town is located in Pittsburgh on the site of an old, abandoned steel mill (sound like a horror film plot yet?), so next time you head to a Steeler’s game, drive through the Hazelwood neighborhood for a peek at “Almono,” the name of the fake town. Don’t be alarmed if you see the mannequins make a mad, erratic dash for the road right as an SDC rolls by. The mannequins are programmed to be suicidal to test how well the SDCs are programmed to avoid them.
Ok, ok… I have to be fair. The cars may be self-driving, but the truth is: they’re not unmanned. There will still be vehicle operators behind the wheel monitoring the SDCs “choices.” The vehicle operators supposedly undergo rigorous on-the-road and written tests and must master the art of driving in Almono before hitting the open road. And Almono, with a round-about and huge containers standing in for giant buildings, is the perfect place for the cars and the vehicle monitors alike to practice how the system would work in the “real world.” But after that, the vehicle monitors take their cars out (or do the cars take them?) to the very real districts of downtown Pittsburgh.
Want a human being’s take on the situation? Rick McKahan, vehicle monitor (and non-robot), says, “We have obstacles and mannequins that move and can cross the street in front of the car. We have prop vehicles zooming around. […] In most situations, we simulate those in such a way that they’re worse than anything you would see out on public roads.”
SDCs are prepared for the worst.
…or are they?
What about the car in Arizona this March that flipped when it was hit by another vehicle? Or the one in San Francisco in December that whizzed through a red-light? Uber says the red-light run was “human error.” The jury’s still out on the flipped car. No worries: Uber hasn’t been found guilty for these accidents. However, it’s no wonder there are still people behind the wheel of these “driverless” cars. And, let’s not forget that, though Uber wasn’t guilty, the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked Uber’s vehicle registrations in a public dispute in December. Hmmm…
Another interesting fact: Uber doesn’t have the corner on this market. Ford and Google have also launched self-driving cars. Of course, perhaps theirs aren’t much better because they’re suing Uber for “stealing intellectual property and trade secrets” from Waymo, the self-driving car company under Google’s umbrella. The trial is set for this December.
Is this the future of the taxi? Will cars ever be completely unmanned?
A better question may be… do we want them to be?