- 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 city 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’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.