How Safe Are Uber’s Self-Driving Cars?

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – With Pittsburgh’s harsh winters and diverse terrain, the idea of riding in a car that drives itself is understandably intimidating.

Uber self-driving cars will hit Pittsburgh streets soon. With the secrecy that has surrounded the project, the question that many people have is “How will the car react in adverse situations?”

Stan Caldwell is the Executive Director with Carnegie Mellon’s Traffic 21 Institute, a CMU initiative that focuses on applying technology to transportation safety and efficiency, including with automated and connected vehicles. He says that automated vehicles aren’t yet equipped to handle some situations like heavy rain, snow, and fog. He also says problems can arise from unplanned disruptions on roadways, like work zones.

“The censors on these automated vehicles have the same challenges that our senses do when we’re operating cars,” Caldwell tells KDKA’s James Garrity, adding that Pittsburgh’s terrain makes it a better place to test automation equipment than in controlled environments.

Caldwell understands why people would feel nervous getting into an automated vehicle, but says that that’s why there are backup drivers.

“Computers do repetitive tasks very well…but where people are still much more superior to computers is being able to handle complex situations quickly,” Caldwell says, adding automated cars can give an indication that they’re “confused” when they need the driver to take over.

“Right now, the vehicles can actually avoid a lot of accidents,” Caldwell says. “But for the time being, we need to have a person in the vehicle that is able to take over in those complex situations where the computer is not able to process that information.”

Caldwell suggests that some automation technology currently in use is no different than traditional cruise control, or cars that brake and park themselves. Looking into the future, he says recent developments are a sign of things to come.

“I believe we’re going to look back one day and say ‘When did we ever quit driving?’”

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