Pittsburgh And Uber’s Automated Vehicles: Buyer’s Remorse?

Nine months after the City of Pittsburgh welcomed Uber with open arms to experiment its driverless cars on its streets and many bridges, local government officials are showing signs of buyer’s remorse, reports The New York TimesConcerns abound regarding the company charging for rides it promised for free, failure to create enough jobs, and withdrawal of support for the city’s application for a federal transportation grant.

Mayor Bill Peduto came under fire during his primary for reelection, when challengers criticized his failure to get a community benefits agreement with Uber in writing beforehand. (He still won.) Comptroller Michael Lamb has called on Uber to share more traffic data, calling the relationship “an opportunity missed.” And, despite Uber representatives’ encouraging words about available jobs for neighbors of the company’s driverless vehicle testing track, the company has not hired any recommended neighboring community members.

From the article:

The deteriorating relationship between Pittsburgh and Uber offers a cautionary tale, especially as other cities consider rolling out driverless car trials from Uber, Alphabet’s Waymo and others. Towns like Tempe, Ariz., have already emulated Pittsburgh and set themselves up as test areas for self-driving vehicles. Many municipalities see the experiments as an opportunity to remake their urban transportation systems and create a new tech economy.

Yet Pittsburgh shows the clash of private-versus-public interests that can result. The lessons are college course level “101,” said Linda Bailey, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Uber “is a business, and they want to make money,” she said. “With Pittsburgh, we learned we need to present the city’s needs upfront.”

Uber, to its credit, has indicated a willingness to review a draft community benefits agreement, and has offered to share some data, as well. The company indicates it has created 675 jobs in the area.

Uber has benefited Pittsburgh in some ways. The company has raised Pittsburgh’s profile, and its Advanced Technologies Center there, which Uber opened for driverless research in 2015, has revived the former steel mill neighborhood known as the Strip District.

Yet city officials and residents are reconsidering even those benefits, especially as Uber has recently grappled with several controversies. Those include a Justice Department criminal investigation into Uber’s use of a software tool to deceive law enforcement. Some Pittsburghers also objected to [Uber chief executive Travis] Kalanick’s being a member of the Trump administration’s business advisory council this year.

In January, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, a nonprofit representing bus drivers and riders, organized a #DeleteUber social media campaign and a street demonstration against the company’s decision to continue airport service when taxi drivers had halted rides to protest the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Molly Nichols, executive director of the group, said Uber had called to ask her to cancel the protest, which ultimately went ahead.

“The warning signs about Uber’s questionable business practices were all over the place, and the mayor should have recognized that and worked harder to create a partnership that was more equitable,” Ms. Nichols said.

She added that there might be longer-term problems from autonomous vehicles, including automation’s effect on Uber’s 4,000 drivers in the city. Parking fees also make up about 15 percent of Pittsburgh’s revenue, and the city has not said how those funds would be replaced if fewer people owned and parked cars and used driverless services instead, she said.

Mr. Peduto, a third-generation Pittsburgher, has perhaps had the most noticeable change of heart. …

In early 2016, Uber had indicated it would support Pittsburgh’s application for a federal grant to redo local transportation, according to Mr. Peduto. He asked Uber to commit private funds to enhance the proposal. Uber said that the request had come too late and that the desired amount — $25 million — was too much. Pittsburgh didn’t win the federal competition.

In January, Mr. Peduto was also surprised to get billed for a ride home in an Uber autonomous vehicle. “Travis Kalanick had told me the rides would be free and a service for the public,” he said.

Uber said it had always intended to charge for driverless rides. …

“When it came to what Uber and what Travis Kalanick wanted, Pittsburgh delivered,” Mr. Peduto said. “But when it came to our vision of how this industry could enhance people, planet and place, that message fell on deaf ears.”

 MACo represents county governments’ interests on the Maryland Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Working Group. See Conduit Street coverage of its meetings here.