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Has Pittsburgh Solidified Itself as the Capital of the Self-Driving Car World?

Argo AI self-driving car in Pittsburgh, PA

An Argo AI autonomous car drives around Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jared Wickerham)

Pittsburgh, a city with its own “Robotics Row” and which gave birth to the first university robotics department—is not a newcomer to the idea of self-driving cars. But recent events have given credence to the claim that the Steel City—and not Silicon Valley—might actually be the world capital of self-driving. 

Following on the heels of Argo AI, Uber, Aurora, Motional, and dozens of other mobility companies with offices along the Allegheny River, Waymo recently announced that it would be opening an outpost in Pittsburgh’s Bakery Square. Soon after, Aurora—founded by Carnegie Mellon alum Chris Urmson—made news that it would be going public through a SPAC deal with Reinvent Technology Partners Y. And then Argo–—led by University of Pittsburgh alum Bryan Salesky—shook up the industry again, with its announcement that it is partnering with Ford and Lyft to bring a first-of-its-kind autonomous ride-hailing service to two U.S. cities this year.

That’s three major pieces of industry news in three weeks, all adding up to a watershed moment for the Pittsburgh tech community. Joel Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network (which recently added a 100th member to its regional consortium of robotics and AI companies), confirms that nearly every major autonomous vehicle company and related automobile manufacturer is doing core research and development in Pittsburgh. The city, he says, has serious claims to being the top robotics ecosystem in the nation, if not the world. “For a western Pennsylvania town with bad weather and hilly terrain,” Reed says, “we see autonomous vehicles on the road everyday, all over the city.” 

Of course, Pittsburgh’s been synonymous with the field of autonomous vehicles since the 1980s, and cemented its status in 2007 with the DARPA Grand Challenge. The driverless car competition required participants to navigate a 60-mile urban course within six hours. Captained by an emerging duo of Urmson and Salesky, along with Raj Rajkumar, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, CMU and General Motors captured a $2 million victory prize. “The groundbreaking event made the singular statement that autonomous vehicles are no longer science fiction,” says Rajkumar, “and that the technology is no longer a question of if but when.” 

According to Rajkumar, the key to Pittsburgh’s leadership in the robotics field lies with the graduates of CMU and the University of Pittsburgh—“a continuous inflow of brilliant students guided by creative researchers that keeps the pipeline gushing with talent.” This summer, the University Libraries and the School of Computer Science at CMU debuted a new archiving project, Building the Robot Archive, which seeks to preserve the history of the robotics field from its earliest incarnations to its potential future achievements.   

Yet Pittsburgh’s history and academic roots are only part of what’s drawing the self-driving industry here. There’s also been a dedicated effort by city, state, and federal governments to make the city a safe testing ground for autonomous vehicles. In 2017, the U.S. Transportation Department designated the city of Pittsburgh and Penn State University as one of 10 proving grounds for self-driving cars. And in 2019, Mayor Bill Peduto signed an executive order called the “Pittsburgh Principles” that outlines the city’s expectations and objectives for safe use of AVs on its streets. In 2020, eight different AV companies voluntarily worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to provide the state with information about where they test their vehicles, how many miles they clocked, and what training procedures test drivers undergo. 

The extensive government-industry collaboration has helped secure Pittsburgh’s predominance in the self-driving world.  Another factor has been its recognition as one of the most livable cities in the U.S, with a relatively low cost of living and a number of progressive initiatives over the last ten years, including a newly announced “mobility as a service” platform which offers residents an all-inclusive membership to a mix of on-demand shared mobility services. The city’s resurgent ethos was famously punctuated by Duolingo, a Pittsburgh-based language-learning tech company, who put up a billboard near a busy San Francisco highway that read, “Own a home. Work in Tech. Move to Pittsburgh.” 

“That’s been our pitch,” says Reed. “You can work in these cutting-edge industries and be at the center of a major historical effort, and still own a home with a backyard.” He also adds that as Pittsburgh’s AV industry grows, so does its ability to retain talent over the long-term. “The concern was always, I might come for one job but if that doesn’t work out is there a bigger industry for me to stay within? That’s no longer an issue.” 

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