Tech Talk: Uber's Problems May Grow Amidst Backlash In Pittsburgh

To say that Uber just can't seem to catch a break would probably be an understatement and the latest news out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - where Uber is conducting autonomous vehicle experimentation - isn't looking too good either. The company brought testing for its automated taxi service technologies to the city in early 2016. At the time, Mayor Bill Peduto was very receptive to the idea of being what he called "a 21st-century laboratory for technology." Peduto says that promises were made by Uber in exchange for allowing the company to test in the city. However, many within the city are not happy with the results and do not believe that it has lived up to those promises. The problem itself seems to stem from a lack of communication between the city and Uber.

To begin with, Uber has started to charge for driverless rides. Those were allegedly pitched to the city as something that would be on offer for free. That may be understandable depending on the terms of the agreement between the company and city, or even if there were no official terms. It would have been somewhat naive to think that a for-profit company could offer free services indefinitely and remain operational and the company has explicitly said that it had always intended to charge for driverless rides at some point. If that weren't enough, the company also backed out on supporting the city's application for a federal grant worth $50 million. That grant would have been used for the city's transportation infrastructure, but Uber says the city's requested $25 million private contribution was too much of an investment for the company.

Beyond those problems, residents of the city don't agree whether or not Uber has delivered on its promise to bring jobs into the municipality. Uber maintains that it has created 675 jobs in the area, in total. Some residents from the neighborhood where Uber's test track was created disagree. According to a local pastor, Tim Smith, the company told community members that jobs would be given to people from that neighborhood. Smith says that, as far as he knows, the company has actually not hired any of those residents that have applied, as far as he's aware. Instead of hiring actively from that neighborhood, applicants are forced to go through the company's job website. Meanwhile, other residents have expressed concerns about the effect Uber's self-driving cars will have on other areas of established employment and the city's finances. According to one group, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, there are 4,000 Uber drivers in the city and it is not known how automated vehicles will impact those drivers' livelihoods. The group's executive director, Molly Nichols, also pointed out that a further negative result could be imminent because parking fees make up such a large portion of the city's revenue - at around 15 percent.

Moreover, city employees have not been happy with the fact that of traffic data collected by Uber's self-driving vehicles has not been shared with the city. Uber has said that it has plans to share some of that information for use by Pittsburgh's city planners once a deal can be reached. While officials have expressed that they don't believe the amount the company has historically shared with other cities has been enough, Uber says that it has not seen any proposals on that front.

Some of Uber's missteps in Pittsburgh may be understandable since Uber is, at the end of the day, a company that needs to make money to survive, according to Linda Bailey, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. The city, she explains, really needed to put its own needs front and center, which is something the city really failed to do. Bailey further elaborates that the whole situation could be viewed as a cautionary tale with regard to that.

Uber, for its part, hasn't necessarily been a net-negative impact on the city either and the company has brought some benefits to Pittsburgh. In addition to the jobs Uber says it has created, the company has released a statement proclaiming that it is proud to be operating in Pittsburgh and to have put the city "on the self-driving map." It also pointed to help it has provided to local organizations, including a women's shelter. Additionally, its facilities have also revived the local steel industry in the "Strip District," though the city ultimately wants to get away from its steel-dependent past. Going forward, Uber has planned to install art along the testing areas as a way of improving its aesthetic impact on the communities it operates in and is open to proposals for sharing traffic data. Finally, the company has responded to complaints about jobs growth by reaching out to community leaders with offers to discuss job prospects, including job training for young adults in local neighborhoods. The actions taken by the company in response to the souring relationship between itself and Pittsburgh could turn out to be too little or too late, but it would also be difficult to not see the situation it as a great place for Uber to start repairing its public image.

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About the Author

Daniel Golightly

Junior Editor
Daniel has been writing for AndroidHeadlines since 2016. As a Senior Staff Writer for the site, Daniel specializes in reviewing a diverse range of technology products and covering topics related to Chrome OS and Chromebooks. Daniel holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering and has a background in Writing and Graphics Design that drives his passion for Android, Google products, the science behind the technology, and the direction it's heading. Contact him at [email protected]