Uber built a fake city in Pittsburgh with roaming mannequins to test its self-driving cars – Business Insider


uber fake city
An aerial view of Uber’s
fake city in the Hazelwood neighborhood of
Pittsburgh.

Uber

  • Uber is testing its self-driving cars in a fake city it
    built in Pittsburgh, called Almono.
  • The fake city has a giant roundabout, fake cars, and
    roaming mannequins that jump out into the street without
    warning.
  • Uber also uses Almono to train vehicle operators before
    allowing them to monitor the cars in the real world.

Uber’s self-driving-car pilot isn’t without its controversy, but
the program is still alive and well in Pittsburgh.

The ride-hailing giant published a new video earlier this month
showing a glimpse of its fake city where the company’s robocars
learn how to drive in the real world.

Called Almono, the fake city is built on an old steel mill site
along the Monongahela River in the Hazelwood neighborhood of
Pittsburgh. It has a giant roundabout, fake cars, and roaming
mannequins that jump out into the street without warning. There
are even containers meant to simulate buildings, training the
cars to operate even when looming structures block their line of
sight.

Almono is 42 acres, but Uber has asked the Hazelwood
zoning board
for permission to extend the city by 13,000
square feet. The request shows the vital role the track plays in
not only preparing self-driving cars to enter the world, but
training the vehicle operators who sit behind the wheel to
prepare for the unexpected.

“We have obstacles and mannequins that move and can cross the
street in front of the car. We have prop vehicles zooming
around,” Rick McKahan, an Uber vehicle operator, said in an
interview. “In most situations, we simulate those in such a way
that they’re worse than anything you would see out on public
roads.”


uber fake city
Uber’s self-driving cars
have to master the dreaded roundabout before they can hit public
roads.

Uber

Uber’s self-driving cars have had their hiccups. In December, a
video caught one in San Francisco running straight
through a red light
— the company later said the incident was
due to “human error.” In March, a self-driving Uber in Arizona
flipped over after a car hit it, raising questions about how autonomous vehicles
respond to human error
.

Uber wasn’t found to be at fault in either of these incidents,
but they show why the company still needs vehicle operators to
keep an eye out.

The program that trains vehicle operators is rigorous. It takes
three weeks to complete and requires trainees to pass multiple
written assessments and road tests. An Uber representative said
the company employed “hundreds” of safety drivers, but they
declined to provide a specific number.

Vehicle operators first practice on the Almono test track before
monitoring the cars in the real world. The cars can drive in
downtown Pittsburgh, the Strip District, and the neighborhoods of
Bloomfield, Shadyside, Southside, Oakland, and Squirrel Hill.

Just like the vehicle operators, the Uber cars don’t leave Almono
until they’ve passed certain tests, like braking when a mannequin
jets out in front of it.

Uber isn’t the only company to build a fake city to train its
self-driving vehicles — Ford has one called MCity in Ann Arbor,
Michigan
, that’s 32 acres.

Uber introduced its
self-driving cars to the public
last September when it
started allowing users to hail a ride in robotic Ford Fusions in
the Steel City. At the time, competitors like Google had yet to
reveal their technology, and for many, it showed that Uber was
serious about being a player in autonomous-vehicle technology.

Uber has since launched programs in Arizona and California. In
San Francisco, however, the cars have been used only to map
routes
since the California Department of Motor Vehicles
revoked Uber’s vehicle registrations in a public dispute in
December.

The fate of Uber’s self-driving-car program is still somewhat
unknown. Waymo, the self-driving-car company spun off from
Google, is suing Uber,
claiming the company stole intellectual property and trade
secrets to advance the program. The trial is scheduled for
December.

But as the two tech behemoths battle it out in the courtroom,
Uber’s cars will continue whizzing down streets in a fake city in
downtown Pittsburgh, preparing for an autonomous-ride-hailing
future.

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