from The New Yorker
One day they just appeared—Ford Fusions, some black, some white, with uber stamped on the side. With their twenty cameras, seven lasers, and rooftop-mounted G.P.S., the self-driving cars stood out. People stopped and stared as they took trial journeys around Pittsburgh. That was in the spring. Now, in the waning days of summer, passengers hailing an Uber X may be picked up by one of the city’s many human drivers, or by one of a tiny fleet of autonomous vehicles. “I think that this is the most important thing that computers are going to do in the next ten years, is drive cars,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice-president of engineering, told a roomful of reporters on Monday, as the fleet prepared to ferry its first customers.
Inside, the cars look remarkably ordinary. They have two fewer cup holders than a standard Fusion, to accommodate two extra buttons in the center console, and, because of the equipment mounted on top, you can’t open the moonroof. In the trunk, a fan whirls continuously, cooling the extra machinery.
The car that I rode in, like the rest of the fleet, wasn’t fully self-driving. It was still in test mode, and Pennsylvania law requires a human in the driver’s seat, so two vehicle operators, a man and a woman, sat up front. The man handled the wheel while the woman balanced a laptop that displayed real-time images from the external cameras. They told me to tap the screen between their seats when I was ready to go. As we began moving, I followed along on the screen, which informed me when the car was in autonomous mode and when the operator had overridden the system and taken the wheel. This happened several times. First, we got stuck behind a double-parked truck, which he had to navigate around. Then a group of pedestrians crossed against a traffic light. Bicyclists, it turned out, were especially tricky for the autonomous system to deal with; from the top, they appear like pedestrians, from the bottom, like some kind of vehicle.