As self-driving cars hit Pittsburgh's roads, Boston wants to be next

For now, self-driving Ubers will still have a human behind the wheel -- just in case

The ride-hailing service Uber today announced that a small fleet of self-driving cars is now serving customers in Pittsburgh along with its more typical fleet of privately-owned vehicles and their drivers.

At the same time, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced he also wants on-street testing of self-driving cars in Beantown.

Uber said it is inviting "our most loyal Pittsburgh customers to experience the future first.

"If a Self-Driving Uber is available, we'll send it along with a safety driver up front to make sure the ride goes smoothly. Otherwise it's uberX as usual," the company said in a blog. "This pilot is a big step forward. Real-world testing is critical to the success of this technology. And creating a viable alternative to individual car ownership is important to the future of cities."

Last year, Uber announced its Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh, which set up closed-circuit roadways for testing self-driving vehicles.

For now, the self-driving Ubers will still have a human driver in case a situation arises that requires their intervention, such as bad weather.

"Of course, we can't predict exactly what the future will hold. But we know that self-driving Ubers have enormous potential to further our mission and improve society: reducing the number of traffic accidents, which today kill 1.3 million people a year; freeing up the 20% of space in cities currently used to park the world's billion-plus cars; and cutting congestion, which wastes trillions of hours every year," Uber said.

Because 90% of all driving accidents are caused by operator error, automating vehicles through onboard computers would reduce injuries, deaths and related costs by staggering amounts, according to a study by the non-profit Eno Center for Transportation.

Uber will be using Ford Focus sedans as its pilot vehicles in Pittsburgh. The vehicles will be equipped with cameras, sensors and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) lasers on the roof, which can create a 3D image of a vehicle's surroundings for navigation.

Boston's mayor said the city is partnering with the World Economic Forum, a Swiss nonprofit foundation focused on public-private cooperation, to explore autonomous driving technologies within the city of Boston.

The year-long effort will focus on "creating policy recommendations and supporting on-street testing of autonomous vehicles...to advance the safety, access and sustainability goals."

Over the course of the next year, the city of Boston and state government leaders will work with the World Economic Forum, The Boston Consulting Group, international cities and mobility industry leaders on developing policy goals and autonomous vehicle testing scenarios for Boston.

"Shared, autonomous vehicles have the potential to fundamentally improve urban transportation by enhancing accessibility for the city's residents and increasing road safety. We are excited to be engaging with the City of Boston during the coming months on making this vision for urban mobility a reality," said Nikolaus Lang, a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group.

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