Experts expect self-driving cars to bring many benefits, mainly reducing the number of lives lost each year in motor vehicle crashes. Use of the vehicles is also expected to change the lives of the elderly and the disabled, as well as ease both road congestion and pollution.
When Uber picked Pittsburgh as the inaugural city for its driverless car experiment last fall, many people saw the move as the next critical step for autonomous cars—and Pittsburgh’s mayor was thrilled. As time has passed, however, enthusiasm has waned, now offering perhaps a cautionary tale for other cities and makers of autonomous vehicles.
“You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet,” Bill Peduto, mayor of Pittsburgh, said last September. “If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.”
Fast forward to the present, and Pittsburgh residents and officials alike say Uber hasn’t lived up to its end of the deal. As a recent New York Times article points out, chief among Uber’s perceived transgressions are that the company originally pitched the idea that driverless test rides would be free but the company started charging for those rides. It also withdrew support from Pittsburgh’s application for a $50 million federal grant to revamp transportation. What’s more, Uber hasn’t created the jobs it proposed in a struggling neighborhood that houses its autonomous car testing track.
Mayor Peduto was initially proud of his relationship with Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, but as CNN Money noted last month, the “bromance” has hit a rough patch. Indeed, Peduto didn’t get any commitments in writing about what Uber would provide for Pittsburgh, and that became an issue in Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayoral primary—with Peduto’s challengers criticizing his relationship with Uber and one calling the company a “stain” on the city, the New York Times reports.
The deteriorating relationship between Pittsburgh and Uber may be a warning for other cities, especially as local officials in other cities consider rolling out driverless car trials from Uber, Alphabet’s Waymo and others. Towns like Tempe, Ariz., have already emulated Pittsburgh and set themselves up as test areas for self-driving vehicles. Furthermore, municipalities increasingly see the experiments as an opportunity to remake their urban transportation systems and create a new tech economy.
That may prove to be the case, and yet the situation in Pittsburgh does illustrate how private-versus-public interests can clash. The lessons are college course level “101,” Linda Bailey, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, says in the New York Times article. Uber “is a business, and they want to make money,” she says. “With Pittsburgh, we learned we need to present the city’s needs upfront.”
Uber, which still has allies in Pennsylvania’s state and county government, told the New York Times in a statement that it has created 675 jobs in the greater Pittsburgh area and has helped local organizations, including a women’s shelter. The company is “proud to have put Pittsburgh on the self-driving map, an effort that included creating hundreds of tech jobs and investing hundreds of millions of dollars,” the statement continued. “We hope to continue to have a positive presence in Pittsburgh by supporting the local economy and community.”
Mayor Peduto still maintains that Uber and other self-driving car companies remain crucial to Pittsburgh’s ability to break from its steel industry past. He also says he is now talking to Ford, which is investing $1 billion in a Pittsburgh-based driverless technology company, Argo AI, about signing commitments on data sharing and work force development. Ford declined to comment.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between companies making self-driving cars and municipalities? Can what happened in Pittsburgh be simply attributed to not getting commitments in writing or is it more a case of one party failing to live up to another’s high expectations? Then again, is it both?