Geography Alumni Map the Way for Uber’s Self-Driving Cars
Bill Morelli with one of Uber's Volvo XC90 self-driving cars, a common sight on Pittsburgh streets.
In this era of satellite navigation systems, people use digital maps at every turn. And, at ride-sharing service Uber, maps are being drawn—and redrawn, then drawn again—by a team that includes a number of IUP geography alumni.
The team’s water-cooler talk often drifts to Indiana and the university. Sometimes its members wax nostalgic about Ninth Street Deli. And other times, they talk about their favorite geography professors and classes.
“It’s amazing that the faculty has remained so consistent through the years and that we all had overlap,” said Bill Morelli, who was Bill Tokarcik when he graduated in 2002.
Morelli is one of at least nine IUP alumni—graduating between 1988 and 2017—who work at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, where the company and its engineers are developing and refining its self-driving vehicle technology.
Speaking on behalf of Uber’s IUP contingent, Morelli said accurate maps are vital to autonomous vehicles, which still need a good set of directions, even if they can steer themselves.
“When a human is following turn-by-turn directions using a GPS application, accuracy is important to get from Point A to Point B. But if something has changed, a person can pull over and ask for directions,” he said. “Autonomous vehicles do not have this
option, so accuracy becomes that much more important.”
As map production team lead, Morelli helps supervise the group that creates and updates the maps. The work is never ending, he said.
“Cities and roads are always changing, and these changes must be documented and updated in our maps to ensure the current view our vehicles see is accurate,” he said.
At Uber, the challenge is to manage a huge and complex pipeline of data that flows in from the vehicles that collect street data and to use that information to build navigable, three-dimensional maps.
The IUP contingent is part of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group. In addition to Pittsburgh, the group has offices in Toronto and San Francisco. The Pittsburgh office opened in 2015 and employs about 700 people.
On Pittsburgh streets, Uber’s self-driving cars are a common sight, instantly recognizable by the spinning, range-finding devices mounted on their roofs. These lidar systems bounce light off of objects to create a three-dimensional image of the vehicle’s
A tablet in the back of an Uber self-driving vehicle shows a model of the vehicle's surroundings produced by the range-finding lidar system.
Some members of Morelli’s team are directly employed by Uber, while others work under contract with Uber through a staffing firm. Morelli is among those directly employed by the company. He started his job in 2016.
“I applied for a couple of positions, because autonomous vehicle development intrigued me, and I landed a phone interview for the map production manager,” he said.
That position required more experience than he had at the time, but as luck would have it, the person who got the job (Vince Sneath ’88) had been Morelli’s director at another mapping company.
Still, that connection took him only so far. To obtain a position at Uber, Morelli had to complete a rigorous interview process that involved “homework” and a half-day of interviews with a panel of employees.
“The interview process is thorough, because Uber is looking for the best talent in every field across the organization,” he said.
According to Morelli, it’s not by chance that a cluster of IUP graduates has found employment with Uber. IUP has one
of the few geographic information systems programs in the region, he said, and the program carries weight within the field. That, he said, is a testament to IUP’s Geography and Regional Planning Department.
“The department was small, and there was a lot of interaction with the faculty,” Morelli said. “They taught the concepts and used the latest GIS technologies to put those theories to use in modern, real-world careers.
“They were very big on working as teams and presenting your work in professional situations. This combination of theory, technology, and communication prepared me to sit in front of a computer drawing maps for eight hours, to write a process document,
and to stand up in front of an auditorium of people and present my work.”
John Benhart, chair of the department, said the faculty works to ensure students are grounded in both the conceptual and the practical.
Part of Uber's IUP contingent in Pittsburgh, from left: Marysa Myers '16, Bryan Tramontina '17, Michael Perry '15, Aaron Kovach '08, Bill Morelli '02, Vince Sneath '88, and Jonathan Crise '16. Tramontina, Perry, Kovach, and Crise-as well as David
Higgins '15 and Luke Schmidt '15 (not pictured)-work under contract with Uber through the staffing agency Adecco.
“One of the things our employment partners consistently say about our graduates is that they have applied knowledge—that is, they understand how to apply their scientific knowledge to spatial problem solving in their work environment,” Benhart said. “I
would say that those characteristics are likely what Uber finds attractive about our students.”
Of course, it also helps that the graduates find themselves at a point in time when demand for their skills abounds.
“When I started, it was a niche career, and the only people who bought navigation systems were wealthy people,” Morelli said. “You
couldn’t buy a Garmin at Best Buy at the time. But now, everybody uses turn-by-turn mapping.
“Maps are being served up on every single platform you can imagine. As far as GIS and mapping are concerned, it opens up huge opportunities for our field. People have always needed maps, and opportunities exist in almost every field for GIS professionals
And now, those opportunities include the creation of maps that are enabling an autonomous vehicle revolution.
“Mapping and cartography have become tightly coupled with software engineering and information technology,” Morelli said. “Autonomous vehicle mapping enhanced that relationship. Overall, it brings our profession into a field that did not exist commercially
just a few years ago.”