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Self-driving Ubers’ bike snafu appears unique to SF streets

Pittsburgh officials say it hasn’t come up in their city

Close up of Uber's self-driving car in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Foo Conner

Uber’s fleet of self-driving cars hit the streets of its hometown one week ago, to an almost instantaneous flurry of complaints.

Among them: Self-driving Ubers tend to turn into bike lanes without warning, mimicking a bad habit of many human drivers that invites collision.

The odd thing is, the San Francisco-based company has been employing the same technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for months, reportedly without ever encountering this problem. For whatever reason, it appears to be a glitch unique to our streets.

The day after the roll out, the San Francisco Bike Coalition warned that the driverless cars may fail to merge into bike lanes before turning. This style of “right hook” turn is a regular menace for cyclists.

When the public spotted some of the automated automobiles blowing red lights and cutting people off (a taxi cab of all things captured the footage, which has pulled in more than 1 million views), Uber blamed the human operator rather than the machinery.

(Counter intuitive though it sounds, all of the company’s self-driving cars have human operators right now, to take the wheel in case of emergency; think of it as Driver’s Ed for robots.)

But the company says the bike lane issue really is a programming problem, and promises a fix.

Pittsburgh, which has a robust cycling community, played host to self-driving Ubers starting in September.

Oddly, the programming glitch that sends San Francisco vehicles veering into bike lanes doesn’t seem to have come up there, although no one is quite sure why.

“We haven’t heard anything at all,” Tim McNulty, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, told Curbed SF, sounding a little surprised that we were having problems.

“They have been testing in neighborhoods that have a lot of bike lanes,” he added.

Kristen Saunders, bike and pedestrian coordinator for Pittsburgh, confirmed that no one has complained about automated cars’ posture toward bike lanes, and couldn’t remember any accidents.

A spokesperson for Bike Pittsburgh, the city bike coalition, said that she had an encounter with a self-driving Uber that wouldn’t pass her, but couldn’t remember any lane issues.

Chris Cassidy, spokesman for the SF Bike Coalition, points out that the company highlighted San Francisco cyclists as a road element it particularly wanted to test around.

But Cassidy couldn’t think of any reason why San Francisco’s streets might provoke this problem when another city’s do not. Neither could anyone else.

“Bike lanes are bike lanes,” says Pittsburgh’s McNulty. “I imagine they’re largely the same.”

Of course, the people who would probably know better than anyone are Uber. But they haven’t yet responded to our requests for comment.

The company’s self-driving cars employ a suite of seven cameras and a laser to create a 360 degree model of road conditions that the car’s computer can understand.

Dozens of companies are testing similar technology every day, but Uber is the first to employ it commercially for the public.

The state complains that the company is operating without proper permits, but Uber insists that the relevant laws don’t apply to them.