Uber, Peduto encourage local officials to embrace autonomous vehicles
November 19, 2016 12:00 AM
Mayor Bill Peduto talks to Jon Shieber, senior editor of TechCrunch, about how the vehicles resemble the Batmobile, with the equipment on top of the Uber vehicles.
Mayor Bill Peduto, left, and Jon Shieber, senior editor of TechCrunch, listen as David Plouffe, senior vice president of policy and strategy at Uber, speaks from Denver, Colo., on screen.
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As it seeks to transform the way people move around cities and towns, Uber had the ear of perhaps its largest audience of local officials on Friday.
And the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company had one of its biggest supporters, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, to explain why he gave a green light to autonomous vehicles in the Steel City while others were more skeptical.
The discussion about Uber was a brief morning session at the National League of Cities' annual City Summit, where more than 3,000 mayors, city council members and other elected and appointed community leaders are gathered. The conference, designed to encourage partnerships at the local level to tackle big problems, kicked off on Thursday.
“The Wright Brothers didn’t wait until there were rules in place,” Mr. Peduto told a packed ballroom at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. “It was decades later that rules on aviation came. The automobile industry started without any regulation. It was decades later that rules came.”
Still, Mr. Peduto stressed there is a place for federal and state regulations to govern the broad operations of ride-hailing companies, like stipulations you might find in an operating license.
Mr. Peduto was joined via Skype by David Plouffe, senior vice president of policy and strategy for Uber. Mr. Plouffe, a political strategist who managed President Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined Uber in 2014 as an adviser and sits on the tech company’s board.
Uber launched its Advanced Technologies Center, currently in the Strip District, in early 2015, and Mr. Peduto said the company eventually could employ 1,000 people.
All the possible downsides — automation causing layoffs, a few fender-benders, data privacy — outweigh the societal benefit of reducing car crashes, easing congestion, and increasing access, Mr. Peduto said.
“With anything, it’s not 100 percent fail proof,” he said. “But the only way we make progress as a society is by taking that risk. Just by nature, government is risk-averse. Governments have to be able to adapt to be able to share that risk. There has to be that partnership for the industry where trust is built in.”
When Uber approached him, Mr. Peduto said, “what they wanted to see was a government that was willing to green light innovation.”
Mr. Plouffe described Uber’s vision as complementary to public transportation, serving as a connector for riders to get to bus routes and to go on short errands.
“Getting into a car in one of the most dangerous things we do every day,” Mr. Plouffe said, adding that Uber’s autonomous technology will make vehicles “superhuman.”
Mr. Peduto, along with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Gov. Tom Wolf — came to Uber’s defense in April after the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission levied an unprecedented fine of $11.4 million on the company for operating illegally in the state for several months after its launch in 2014.
In a letter to the PUC, the officials called the fine “chilling” and said it “constitutes a civil penalty on innovation, threatening the company’s ability to harness new technologies and create the jobs of tomorrow.”
After issuing the fine, the state gave the companies temporary licenses to operate. Regulators now are working on granting ride-hailing companies permanent licenses to run in Pennsylvania.
After the discussion, a conference speaker asked the audience who wanted autonomous vehicles in their town. Hands across the room shot up.
Daniel Moore: email@example.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.
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