Pittsburgh's rocky relationship with Uber takes another turn

Riding a self-driving Uber around San Francisco
Riding a self-driving Uber around San Francisco

The bromance between the leaders of Pittsburgh and Uber has hit another rough patch.

Mayor Bill Peduto had long welcomed Uber and its self-driving cars to Pittsburgh, proud to be a proving ground for an innovation that could revitalize the Rust Belt city. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who has often clashed with local governments, found an actual ally in Peduto, who took a hands-off approach to regulating self-driving cars.

Then Peduto soured, and he lashed out at Kalanick in January, calling the relationship between Uber and Pittsburgh a one-way street. After Kalanick withdrew from President Trump's economic advisory council, Peduto backed off.

But the ceasefire didn't last long. Peduto said Monday, in a statement targeting Uber, that economic disruptors have a moral obligation to provide societal benefits.

The spat highlights the challenge cities will face as they lure new technologies and businesses in an era when economic growth goes hand in hand with eliminating jobs.

bill peduto travis kalanick

Pittsburgh is becoming a self-driving car hub, with high-profile startup Aurora, and Argo AI, a Ford subsidiary, also opening offices in the city.

Experts expect self-driving cars to bring many benefits, chiefly curtailing the 1.25 million lives lost globally each year in motor vehicle crashes. But there will also be downsides, some of which may be tough to foresee. Most obvious is the disruptive impact on people who make a living driving today.

Related: Is Uber's push for self-driving cars a job killer?

"One hundred years ago, Pittsburgh was the original economic disruptor. We created air dangerous to breathe, water poisonous to drink and the greatest disparity between the haves and have nots in American history," Peduto said, referencing the city's steel industry. "We stand on the shoulders of our parents and grandparents who sacrificed to guarantee workers the chance at the American dream. We are committed to build from that base so that our new economy benefits our workers, our environment and the city we love."

Peduto told the Wall Street Journal that he would demand Uber sign a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to better working conditions for Uber drivers, services for elderly Pittsburgh residents and fuel economy improvements.

Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There is no formal agreement or contract between Uber and the city of Pittsburgh. The city could potentially pass restrictive regulations related to self-driving cars, but Peduto hasn't threatened that.

For some in Pittsburgh, the lack of self-driving car rules has been a point of contention.

Related: Your car's data may soon be more valuable than the car itself

Self-driving cars take in unprecedented amounts of data. A typical self-driving car gets enough data to fill an iPhone's memory in 30 seconds of driving.

Data is now considered a precious resource that is the path to billions. Facebook (FB) and Google (GOOGL) are some of the best examples of how building a great modern company boils down to turning data into dollars.

Today, Pittsburgh has no say in what Uber does with the self-driving car data. And Uber isn't sharing the data with Pittsburgh, which will limit how well its government can serve citizens.

Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb described to CNNTech earlier this year how the data could be used for public safety. What if video footage from Uber's fleet was used to help try and locate a missing person?

"They've created this fleet of robots, collecting data about our city," Lamb said. "Are they going to be able to market that data to other interested parties? And do we have some say over that? Do we profit from that? These issues probably should've been negotiated."

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