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Will Uber’s self-driving cars be a good thing for Pittsburgh?

What’s the benefit to being on the cutting edge of the race to robot cars?

The race to unleash robot drivers has become much more interesting this week.

Just days after Ford’s CEO made an audacious boast that his company would have driverless cars on the road by 2021, Uber announced that it will begin operating a small fleet of automated cars in Pittsburgh as a test run for a wider expansion of the technology.

According to Bloomberg Business, the company will operate a fleet of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles with special cameras, lasers, radar and GPS receivers. The technology has been road-tested since May. As of now, only a handful of the cars are on the road, and for the foreseeable future, a human driver will sit behind the wheel at all times.

But that may not last long. Volve and Uber signed a pact to devote $300 million to developing and deploying a fully autonomous car by 2021. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wants to replace the company’s more than 1 million human driver with robot drivers "as quickly as possible." Customers will encounter the driverless vehicles at random, and trips will be free for now, instead of the regular rate of $1.30 a mile.

With Google, Apple, and the major automakers figuring out their own autonomous models and accompanying mobility technology, Uber isn’t merely rushing to be first to market, but fighting for survival and relevance against an existential threat.

Is this roll out the beginning of a new chapter in Pittsburgh’s economic history, perhaps placing it in the enviable position of being one of the areas on the forefront of a new industry? Uber’s investment in this program over the last few years has paid dividends to Pittsburgh, according to news reports, and the company’s arrival in 2014 helped support local workers and improved the city’s spotty taxi service. It hasn’t all been rosy, however, especially after fare cuts lowered driver pay. The company is also still working to extend its now-temporary authority to operate in the state, and was fined $11.4 million by the state’s Public Utility Commission in April for giving rides in 2014 without permission.

The rush to perfect robot driving has meant that the area’s renowned robotics labs, especially at local universities such as Carnegie Mellon, have been top targets of Uber talent scouts, who quickly built up a staff of hundreds at the company’s Advanced Technologies Center.

Uber will be quickly ramping up its investment in driverless technology, but not necessarily in Pittsburgh. According to the Bloomberg piece, a big part of Uber’s push will come from its acquisition of Otto, a startup that specializes in driverless truck tech. Uber is already planning on opening two new R&D centers, one in the Otto office in San Francisco and the other on Palo Alto.

But Pittsburgh may get the chance to be the first city forced to grapple with the regulatory issues that will become a quick topic of discussion among cities across the country. Numerous issues, from integrating local transportation issues to insurance to redesigning streets to accommodate robotic druvers could become big issues as driverless cars start rolling out in greater and greater numbers. With a head start, and the focus of a big company such as Uber, which has plenty of incentive to guarantee a smooth roll out of the technology, Pittsburgh may benefit from the additional attention.