When Uber began testing driverless cars in several cities (and battled with California over its right to do so without a permit) last year, select passengers who wanted to try the experience weren’t the only passengers in the car. That’s because Uber is conducting research and has operators in the vehicles as it tests them in real life scenarios.

As Uber engineers test the automation, several things are proving to be troublesome for the artificial intelligence to interpret. First and foremost, the unpredictability of human drivers makes it challenging for the AI to compensate. For example, crossing over into the left lane to make a right-hand turn is a scenario that does not compute for the software.

Self-driving Uber prototype being tested in San Francisco

Self-driving Uber prototype being tested in San Francisco

Another quandary is bridges, so the company chose Pittsburgh specifically because of its many bridges, as a way to iron those bugs out. Bridges are difficult for driverless cars to handle, said Uber’s engineering director Raffi Krikorian, because they lack environmental cues that streets have, namely buildings. According to Business Insider, Krikorian said Pittsburgh was the “double black diamond of driving” and he believes conducting research in that city will help the research advance quickly.

Weather is also proving a challenge because snow, for example, obscures lane markings, making navigation tricky. Uber is also finding other challenges from nature during its tests, such as trees. The cars rely on high-definition maps with landmarks to navigate. In Pittsburgh, the images on those maps were taken in the winter when there were no leaves on the trees, so the car can’t determine what the new objects on its route are.

The cars are also challenged by what to do when obstacles appear, and then disappear. A human driver knows what to do when ducks are crossing the road. A driverless car has to be taught to identify the ducks, stop and wait for them to cross, and then know when it’s safe to continue.

With all these scenarios yet to be ironed out, it seems like it will be a few years yet before driverless cars are commonplace on our streets.

I asked a colleague of mine whether she would ride in one. Her response offered an insight I hadn’t considered before. She said that, as a woman, the problem with getting into a regular Uber is that she doesn’t know anything about her driver, so she can’t be completely sure of her safety. She said once the kinks are ironed out, she feels there will be a known level of safety that she doesn’t experience right now in most ride-sharing rides.

As for me, I can’t commit until I see that the technology is tested and proved. I’ve got my own thoughts and ideas, but for now, I’ll reserve my opinion until I know more.

What about you? Would you be willing to ride in a driverless Uber that’s truly driver-free? Do you have a preference? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Dilu (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)