Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto says part of his motivation to let Uber test autonomous-car hails in the city is that he wants to ensure growth. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Last month, Uber made a surprise announcement: The company would let Uber customers hail self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh. Mayor William Peduto shares his thoughts on what this test means for the citizens of Pittsburgh — and for the long-struggling Rust Belt city’s role in the future of the global economy.

Pittsburgh will be the first U.S. city to have commuters riding in self-driving cars. How did it happen?

[Uber chief executive] Travis Kalanick reached out about a year ago. I had fought for them in Harrisburg — on regulations that would have stopped them from operating. When we had our first meeting, he referenced the Pittsburgh Project. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘Do you know about the Manhattan Project?’ he said. ‘At Uber, we call this the Pittsburgh Project — the goal is to build an autonomous vehicle center in Pittsburgh.’ Well, that piqued my interest. The conversation quickly led to Uber setting up a headquarters in Pittsburgh, and by the end of the year, they employed over 200 people. They employ over 500 now.

Then what happened?

We agreed with them about six months ago to let them take autonomous vehicles onto our streets. We’re also working with them to expand their operations and research facilities.

What was the agreement? Do they assume all the risk if there’s an accident?

There is no formal agreement. They are permitted under existing state law to operate the vehicles with a licensed human driver. We required that Uber coordinate with the traffic division of our police bureau to ensure public safety. They assume all the risk.

Why is Pittsburgh a good place for this experiment?

Pittsburgh has challenging topography, different types of weather and bridges. That makes it an interesting place to test. It’s a small city, so you can do things here; it doesn’t get bogged down in red tape. We have world-class talent in robotics. We created the first doctorate in robotics, at Carnegie Mellon. There is another thing too: Pittsburgh has a history not only in innovation but also in building things. All the parallel research — the parts that would be needed to create autonomous vehicles, like cybersecurity research for vehicles, is being done here. We have over a century of advanced manufacturing.

Uber has been a job creator in Pittsburgh by providing work for drivers. Now, the city is poised to become a leader in building a technology that could make those jobs obsolete. Does that concern you?

It’s not a question of whether there will be a change in jobs. The question is where a new industry will be born. There are cities that are becoming the new industrial hubs. Pittsburgh is one of the only cities that has traffic signals that can learn. The technology of autonomous vehicles is where the world is moving. Airlines, worldwide shipping — it’s all gone autonomous. If we tried to stop time and did not want to be a leader in an industry that will forever change transportation over the next decade, we would be losing this opportunity to another city. Mobility, and especially urban mobility, is moving to shared, electrical and autonomous. These aren’t trends.

But people are upset. Kalanick has said he hopes to replace all of Uber’s human drivers with technology.

Five years ago, Uber didn’t exist. We would hope to replace drivers lost with advanced manufacturing jobs. Everything from the sensors in vehicles to the automotive add-ons that will be required. The thing that makes Uber unique in this is that, unlike Google or even Volvo, Uber is partnering with automotive manufacturers — and the manufacturing component is something Pittsburgh can seize upon. We know how to build things.

Still, there could be blowback.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I’m 51. I have never seen my city grow. I saw it go through economic depression. When I graduated high school, the unemployment rate was about 19 percent — higher than it was in the Great Depression. I watched my family move away and my friends move away. And I worked for so many politicians whose campaigns were predicated on bringing the mills back. But at the same time, people were planting seeds. People like Dick Cyert of Carnegie Mellon, who made one of the first robotics and supercomputer centers. Our overnight success story, which took 30 years of suffering to get to, is that new industries will replace the old steel mills. This is showing how a Rust Belt city that everyone considered dead has come back.

Is there an application for self-driving cars in public transit?

This is a last-mile and a first-mile technology. Think about someone who is elderly who lives a mile away from the bus stop. This is a way to get to the bus stop. Or if the bus drops them off far from the doctor’s office, they can get a ride to the doctors office. This is something we’ll be able to think about addressing. We need a healthy public transit system combined with an automated ride-share system.

This is coming quickly. Like all of a sudden — boom, driverless cars! How can that be?

Over the last nine months, working with these companies and people, I now can see how this technology is moving rapidly.

Have you taken a ride in a self-driving car?

The day they announced, [Kalanick] picked me up from work and took me home. There is a person in the car. Their hands are on the wheel, feet are off the pedals. There’s another person staring at the computer screen. When the car doesn’t recognize something, a light turns on and the driver has control of the vehicle. It was very smooth. There was no time I was fearful. I’m more worried when I’m the road with an 18-year-old kid, or when I see someone drive and play Pokémon Go.

A lot of people are scared of self-driving cars. Have you talked to Kalanick about that?

I had dinner with him one night. One person at the table was the guy who created Google Maps, and the other person is the reason you don’t see the fail whale on Twitter anymore. I asked them, ‘Do you know a lot of people are worried about this? About cars without humans? That it’s causing people anxiety to think they are driving down the street and the car next to them won’t have anybody driving?’ It’s a foreign thought. And they said, you know, people should be worried about things like genetic engineering — how DNA could be tampered with. That went into a conversation about a South Korean operation where you can clone animals. I looked it up — it’s true, there is a doctor in South Korea that does that. It started an interesting conversation.

It sounds like they were sidestepping the issue.

You hear other technology executives talk in these grandiose terms about making the world better. You don’t hear that much from Uber. I tell [Kalanick], the model has to be beyond libertarian. Your factory is the public’s right of way — your factory is owned by the people. They’ve already proven they can be a successful company. But can they make it a successful company for all? Travis knows where I stand on that.

This city was built on the backs of people like my grandfather, who worked in a steel mill his entire life. And we didn’t make steel, we made the middle class. When you talk about what happens to the drivers and the safety of people, those have to become the forefront of this conversation. [Kalanick] agreed to talk about that.