Behind the wheel of Uber’s new self-driving car, which hits the road today

On Monday, I found myself behind the wheel of a Ford Fusion driving down a Pittsburgh street lined with gorgeous Romanesque brick factories. The sky was a cloudless blue, the Allegheny River sparkled seductively through the trees, and I was able to drink in all the splendor of the day without distraction because I wasn’t actually driving the car. This was one of Uber’s new self-driving cars, and I was behind the wheel, admiring the view. That is, until the Ford SUV in front of me stopped without warning.

Time slowed down. My brain issued the signal to brake, but before my foot could respond, the car braked on its own. It was abrupt but gentle, the kind of stop that would have caused my wife to raise a disapproving eyebrow, but only slightly. There wasn’t enough time to be amazed. The driver of the SUV was waving for me to pass him, and while the self-driving Uber is festooned with sensors and cameras which it uses to “see” its surroundings, there was nothing in the car’s algorithm that could interpret the universal symbol for “drive around me.” The human — aka me — still needed to take control.

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