Uber Ushering in Era of Driverless Rides

By: Bridget Clerkin August 25, 2016
Pittsburgh is set to host a fleet of self-driving cars. 
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If you’re someone who prefers your cab rides quiet—or at least doesn’t like making small talk with your driver—you may want to book a trip to Pittsburgh.

The city is primed to host the world’s first experiment sending self-driving cars to fetch and drop off public passengers. Officially launching later this month, the fleet—owned by rideshare giant Uber—can be summoned by anyone in Pittsburgh with just the push of an app.

What riders will get out of the deal is a spin in a specially modified Volvo XC90, with a paid driver behind the wheel just in case he or she is needed. The cars are loaded with dozens of cameras, lasers, and sensors, along with radar and GPS, but bridges—of which Pittsburgh has many—are notoriously tricky for the technology to navigate.

The rides will be free, but the feedback from the pilot will pay Uber back dividends.

Made possible in part by a recent $300 million deal Uber inked with Volvo—in which the corporations agreed to work together on building a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021—the experiment will let both companies dive head-first into the ultra-competitive driverless car industry, collecting information not only on how the vehicles perform but also on how actual customers feel about the experience.

That direct interaction with clients will put Uber a step ahead of other companies experimenting with driverless technology, including Google, who has largely played the industry trailblazer with such moves as pushing for autonomous technology to legally be considered a “driver.”

Nearly simultaneously, Uber has made a flurry of other strategic business moves that work to position themselves even further ahead of the pack.

The app giant recently acquired San Francisco start-up Otto, a company launched earlier this year by former Google big-wigs intent on bringing driverless technology to big-rig trucks. And the Volvo contract allows Uber to work with other carmakers, so the company will be free to incorporate even more driverless vehicles into its future fleets.

Uber has also been on a hiring spree in Pittsburgh, luring away a number of professors from Carnegie Mellon University’s prestigious robotics department. Despite a lack of state laws in Pennsylvania regulating self-driving vehicles, and the prolonged absence of a national protocol on the matter, the app company has received the green light from the state to continue experimenting on the technology there.

The personnel of Otto, many of whom worked directly on Google’s autonomous technology, will be particularly important to Uber moving forward. The company has developed its own laser technology that’s currently being used in a number of self-driving prototypes, which Uber will now be free to lend to any of its auto manufacturing partners.

And while the company in the past has touted its ability to create a sustainable income for those who wish to work for themselves, it’s taken a much different position in the wake of its recent acquisitions.

The ultimate goal now, according to CEO Travis Kalanick, is to replace its nearly 1 million drivers with self-driving cars. But the company argues that the move could be for the greater good, allowing Uber to cut costs to the point where it could offer rides so affordable that using autonomous taxis to get around could become cheaper than owning a personal vehicle.

That takes for granted the immense amount of work still needed on driverless technology, including understanding how the vehicles will be insured, and the challenge of programming the computers to respond to life-or-death situations, among a number of other technical issues.

What seems clear is that the race to provide the public with driverless rides is on. The checkered flag has been waved, and a new leader has seemed to emerge.

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