Startups

When looking to Pittsburgh’s AV future, consider how the industry boomed here in the first place

"We've been building on the shoulders of giants": At Pittsburgh Robotics Network's autonomous vehicle summit, local company leaders discussed the industry's recent gains and coming challenges.

Autonomous vehicle company executives gather for an event hosted by the Pittsburgh Robotics Network.

(Photo by Sophie Burkholder)

How close to big returns and long-term success is Pittsburgh’s AV industry? First, look to its recent past to see just how far it’s come.

For the first time in recent memory, leadership from Pittsburgh’s five major autonomous vehicle companies gathered in person to discuss the state of the industry. In an event hosted by the Pittsburgh Robotics Network (PRN) at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side, executives from Aurora, Argo AI, Waymo, Motional and Locomation came together in a panel hosted by PRN Executive Director Joel Reed to discuss the autonomous vehicle tech’s progress in Pittsburgh.

Much of the focus of the discussion centered on the storied past of robotics in Pittsburgh, and its commercialization journey from research to fast-growing public companies today. On that theme, before the panel got started, PRN honored William “Red” Whittaker, longtime roboticist and research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, with the organization’s first Pittsburgh Robotics Impact Award.

The hour-long conversation spanned company origin stories and technical achievements alike, with all panelists agreeing that Pittsburgh would remain a capital for AVs and general robotics for a long time to come. One of the hot topics toward the end of the night was the discussion of potential local legislation allowing for testing of AVs without a safety driver; look for a story on the takeaways from that soon. For now, here’s a recap of the other key areas of discussion of the night.

Despite decades of research as a foundation, commercial activity has only recently exploded

Opening the panel was a question from Reed on when exactly the executives realized that the AV industry had a chance to be huge and what led them to that understanding. Several pointed to the increased push for commercial self-driving tech from giant tech corporations such as Google and Uber, which both set up shop in Pittsburgh by the mid-2010s. In fact, Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson was part of the early efforts within Google to launch Waymo, rubbing elbows with the likes of Anthony Levandowski, Sebastian Thrun and Google cofounder Sergey Brin.

"We've been building on the shoulders of giants."
Chris Urmson, Aurora

“In forging what we had done at Google, we kind of told a story and were able to show that this was more possible than people thought,” Urmson said. “And that helped build the incentive and the excitement around automated vehicles.”

But all of that, he added, wouldn’t have possible without the leadership of researchers like Whittaker and others from CMU, dating all the way back to the founding of the university’s Robotics Institute in 1979.

“Through all of this, we’ve been building on the shoulders of giants,” Urmson said. “There’s been an immense amount of research that happened in Pittsburgh to lay the foundation of this, but then we were able to bring the industrial levels of funding and access to talent to go and build it out.”

Pittsburgh’s work ethic sets it apart

Argo AI cofounder and President Peter Rander said the work ethic and business culture in Pittsburgh was one of the more enticing attributes of the city in deciding to launch a company here. Growing up on a farm in Michigan, Pittsburgh felt like a big city to him, and he assumed he’d never find the “roll up your sleeves” hard work mentality of the rural Midwest here.

“Well, Pittsburgh’s the kind of city where you actually do find it,” Rander said. He found a consensus around the idea that “the work doesn’t have to be glitzy and glamorous to be impactful.”

He credits much of that with the city’s storied industrial past, which included not only the milling and production of steel, but also bricks, glass and more before that. And while the mode of work has changed, the mindset driving it hasn’t, Rander said: “What we are as a city and as a culture — that [Argo AI founder and CEO] Bryan [Salesky] and I brought into the company — is leaning forward and leaning into this to say, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s get to work and let’s really improve the world.”

Like the rest of tech, the AV industry needs more diversity

The robotics and AI industries tend to pull from a small pool of prospective employees who are largely male and white. While it will take time to diversify the tech pipeline within academia in order to supply more potential workers for top positions at these firms, the executives at the event said, all of their companies also require roles outside of that area of expertise. From IT support to administrative needs to business development, the panelists stressed that applicants to their respective companies don’t need a Ph.D. in robotics to work there.

Çetin Meriçli, the cofounder and CEO of autonomous trucking firm Locomation, has workforce development as a top of mind concern at all levels. The guided autonomy system that his company operates on still requires a truck driver to be behind the wheel of the leading truck. So improving the experience and work-life balance of those drivers is of extreme importance to Locomation, which considers the drivers as an extension of the company itself, Meriçli said.

“We are looking not just to make the driving a more comfortable job, but we are looking to make it safer, make it a better-paying job and we are looking to bring a little bit more of a work-life balance in an otherwise incompatible industry,” he said.

And within the technical roles, Motional VP of Technical Programs Balajee Kannan said his company has a priority of fostering diversity in executive roles when it can.

“We’ve been trying to identify how we can grow people into that space,” he said. “Because you ultimately want to be able to have people you can look up to, that become inspirations for you.”

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The PRN has not yet released a recording of the rest of the event, but has plans to do so in the future as an exclusive for the network’s members.


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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