Pittsburgh’s Research Roots Drive Today’s Self-Driving Industry

Apr 22, 2022 | News

By the Pittsburgh Robotics Network

Autonomous vehicle pioneers discuss Pittsburgh’s impact on the self-driving industry during a Pittsburgh Robotics Network panel discussion.

The Pittsburgh region is a global leader in the development of autonomous vehicles (“AVs”), thanks to Pittsburgh-based companies and those with offices here, including Argo AI, Aurora, Motional, Locomation, Waymo and others devoting significant resources to the area.

This achievement isn’t a coincidence, but rather the result of a long history of cooperation among academic researchers, commercialization incubation groups, and public/private investors. Robotics companies in Pittsburgh also actively cooperate and collaborate with each other, such as one company using services and products from others. Larger efforts, such as the development of self-driving vehicles through multiple DARPA challenges, as well as the research of William “Red” Whittaker, have driven the creation of a new industry looking to disrupt transportation for the entire world.

The Pittsburgh Robotics Network honored Whittaker this week with an award that recognizes his role in developing autonomous mobile systems – on Earth and in space – his vision of commercialization of research, and his continued efforts within the robotics and autonomy sectors. The event, “The State of Our Autonomous Vehicle Industry,” was held on Thursday, April 21, 2022 at the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh. In addition to honoring Whittaker, the event featured an update on Pittsburgh’s role as a key robotics cluster for autonomous vehicles, and a keynote panel featuring key leaders in the AV sector.

The award showcased a continued effort around Pittsburgh’s global leadership in the AV space that continues to attract top talent in robotics, perception, vision systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning. There are several reasons why so many leading AV companies have placed their roots in the Pittsburgh region, and why the city will remain a major cluster for the development of self-driving vehicles, robotics, and other autonomous equipment for years to come.

It started with research

“Robotics and self-driving cars in Pittsburgh did not begin in the 2020s, 2010s or even the 2000s,” says Peter Rander, president of Argo. “You have to go back to the foundation of the Robotics Institute in 1979 as the world’s first institution devoted exclusively to the development of robotics, computer vision, and artificial intelligence, and the long-range vision of what could be possible. This established Pittsburgh as the world’s epicenter for robotics from the late 1970s through to the present.”

The development of different robotics technologies through the decades led to new companies devoted to building autonomous systems that are the cornerstone of today’s self-driving vehicles, thanks in part to research developed by Whittaker and his students, who also then began to start their own companies.

Many of these companies were started as the result of Carnegie Mellon’s participation in the DARPA Grand Challenges, held from 2004 through 2007 to spur the development of self-driving technologies. The Whittaker-led Tartan Racing team finished first in the 2007 Urban Challenge, claiming a $2 million prize. 

Chris Urmson, who was the team’s director of technology, would later go on to work for Google to help start the self-driving vehicle program which later became Waymo. Urmson became the co-founder and CEO of Aurora in 2017, and is now developing self-driving autonomous vehicles for ride-sharing and long-haul commercial trucking. About half of Aurora’s employees work in the company’s Pittsburgh offices.

“From day one, we talked about having two head offices, and when we made the transition to a public company we had to declare officially which one was the head office,” says Urmson. “We officially call Pittsburgh the head office, but it was more about the talent, the pipeline of people out of Carnegie Mellon and the quality people we could attract. Given the groundwork that was built in Pittsburgh with Google, Facebook and Uber having facilities in the city, we expected that we could attract talent, and have been able to do so.”

Filling the gap between academics and business

Another innovation that Whittaker contributed to that furthered the link between academic research and commercialization was the founding of the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC). Part of the CMU Robotics Institute, NREC is an innovative academic industry partnership that helps researchers expand on their academic ideas to create solutions and companies that can succeed.

“In 2000 I got my Ph.D. and I wanted to go to the most applied place I could find on the planet,” says Rander. “The most applied space in robotics in the year 2000 was the National Robotics Engineering Center. There was a gap between what the Robotics Institute was able to produce with its masters and Ph.D. students, and what companies like New Holland, Toro, Caterpillar, and John Deere, wanted to achieve. So this center was set up to bridge that gap.”

Projects developed at NREC have contributed to the advances seen in today’s self-driving vehicles, including early efforts in self-driving for the military and other construction and mining vehicles.

Building a system

Another core concept for Pittsburgh’s success is the idea of building systems and not just building technology.

“The idea behind systems thinking is that the integration of technology is as important as any individual technology itself,” says Kevin Dowling, CEO of Kaarta and one of Red Whittaker’s former students. “An autonomous vehicle has so many different technologies, such as legacy equipment with engines and wheels, and then some brand new technologies like perception and sensors.”

“The idea of getting mechanical and electrical and software engineers together, it’s much bigger than that,” says Rander. “The systems thinking and academic foresight of people who were on the frontiers decades ago incubating academic discipline and turning it into art, science and engineering. Somebody has a crazy idea and it progresses to the point that it’s engineered into products and services. That’s Pittsburgh.”

A unique geography for testing

Pittsburgh’s geography is also a big factor for the continued testing of self-driving vehicles, with unique features that includes hills, bridges, highways, roads and four-season climate factors that bring rain, sleet, snow, ice and wind.

“From a self-driving perspective, we have modern roads designed to the latest highway standards, but also have roads that are literally the footpaths that people used to walk or pull their carts on, pre-cars,” says Rander. “There are hills and bridges and a variety of seasons, so you are exposed to much more, which is critical in enabling a test bed.”

Urmson says Pittsburgh’s geography does give a diversity of test environments relative to some other locations, but it wasn’t the primary reason for locating Aurora’s office in Pittsburgh. Rather, it was more about access to the talented employees that come from the Pittsburgh region. 

A get-things-done culture

Like Urmson and Aurora, when Rander and Argo’s co-founder and CEO, Bryan Salesky, were looking for a headquarters for their new self-driving vehicle company, there was only one choice.

“We knew we needed to be in Pittsburgh,” says Rander. “We wanted to be in Pittsburgh. It was because of the robotics talent. Pittsburgh was absolutely essential and an obvious place for our headquarters.”

In addition, the culture of the people of Pittsburgh helped contribute to their choice. “What’s neat about a city like Pittsburgh is that it has a culture of rolling up your sleeves and putting your shoulder into the work,” says Rander. “It’s less focused on the glamor and glitz, and more focused on getting a job done. There’s a culture in Pittsburgh of finding jobs that make the economy run, whether it was bricks and glass to steel, and now it’s in the self-driving space.”

A promising future

This combination of converging factors, much like the three rivers that converge to create the city of Pittsburgh, will help continue to make the region a global destination for AV development.

“It’s going to be exciting for the next five to 10 years because we’re going to see incrementally larger deployments of automated vehicles,” says Urmson. “Come 20 years out, they’re going to be truly ubiquitous, and it will just be a safer world where it’s easier to get around. In the same way that today we get on an airplane and complain that the Wi-Fi doesn’t work and forget about all of that magic that got us there, we’re going to feel the same way about automated vehicles.”

This also will lead to new opportunities, job roles and businesses created by the growth of autonomous vehicles. “In the same way that reducing the difficulty of communicating dropped by an order of magnitude with cell phones and the mobile web, the difficulty and costs of moving materials and people through the world is going to drop by a comparable amount,” says Urmson. “That will lead to new applications, new businesses, and new opportunities similar to what happened 10 to 15 years ago with smartphones.”

While there are several challenges ahead for the technology, AV company leaders agree that the combination of solid academic research, strong commercialization groups to drive new business opportunities, and investors willing to take risks will keep Pittsburgh as the AV leader for years to come.

“Pittsburgh has a lot of core advantages with its talent pipeline,” says Rander. “The foundation has become much better known as a city where innovation is happening not just in an academic sense but in the commercial space with investment capital. I think we’re well positioned.”