Uber begins testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh – USA TODAY

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The company is working out the bugs in its self-driving technology.Video provided by Newsy
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SAN FRANCISCO — The first Uber car that doesn’t need a driver has hit the streets.

The ride-hailing behemoth announced in a blog post Thursday that it has begun testing a self-driving car in Pittsburgh, home of the company’s nascent Advanced Technologies Center.

The car, a Ford Fusion Hybrid with a roof-full of radar, lasers and cameras, will be collecting road-mapping data as well as testing its real-world traffic reactions. Uber’s interest in autonomous car technology dates to a year ago, when the $60 billion start-up began hiring Carnegie Mellon University robotics experts to staff its new center not far from the Pittsburgh-based school.

As with all self-driving cars that are approved for testing on public roads, Uber’s vehicle will have a safety driver who can take over the controls should the situation demand it.

“If you’re driving around Pittsburgh in the coming weeks you might see a strange sight: a car that looks like it should be driven by a superhero. But this is no movie prop,” says the blog post. “While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements. Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road — pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers.”

The post also notes that Uber’s self-driving mission echoes that of Google, which is to reduce the number of traffic fatalities that are largely caused by human error. Last year, 33,000 people died in the U.S. in car accidents and 4.4 million were injured, an 8% jump over 2014, according to the National Safety Council.

But self-driving tech has a financial appeal for Uber as well. CEO Travis Kalanick has made reference on a number of occasions to the fact that the driver is the most expensive part of its financial model, not to mention being the source of an ongoing fight over whether such drivers should be employees or contractors. Uber recently agreed to pay $100 million to settle a lawsuit over driver status.

“When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away,” Kalanick said at the Code Conference in 2014, shortly after Google unveiled its self-driving car prototype.

Google has been testing self-driving car technology for the past seven years, using primarily Lexus SUV’s strapped with technology. Google currently is road testing in Mountain View, Calif, Phoenix, Kirkland, Wash., and Austin. The search company plans to accelerate its testing through a recent partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which will build 100 Pacifica minivans that can accommodate Google’s technology.

Ford is testing its own self-driving tech lashed to a Fusion Hybrid at the Mcity testing facility near Ann Arbor, Mich., and has gotten approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to begin deploying the cars on the roads near its Palo Alto research center.

A growing number of automakers — from Audi to Kia — have begun adding sophisticated driver-assist technology to their vehicles, features that are heading in the direction of full autonomy. Tesla recently introduced an Autopilot function to its electric sedans, which keeps the car within its lane by itself.

Given the pace of autonomous car research, many in the space believe driverless cars will be ready for consumers within the next three to four years.

But the bigger hurdles remain both regulatory and psychological. Many consumers still express fear of self-driving technology, while government officials continue to grapple with establishing a series of overarching national regulations to govern everything from how the cars should interact with each other to what happens if there’s an accident.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter: @marcodellacava

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