Uber will become the first company to make self-driving vehicles available to transport customers this month.
The company, which has been mostly quiet about its automated driving program even as competitors such as Google and Lyft have made national headlines, has announced that it plans on rolling out retrofitted self-driving Volvo XC90s in Pittsburgh this month. According to an article from Bloomberg Businessweek, the company will have employees in the vehicles ready to take over driving if necessary.
Uber did not specify what level of autonomy the vehicles would have, but CEO Travis Kalanick told Bloomberg that they would specifically operate in downtown Pittsburgh. Uber’s media office has not yet responded to questions about what level of autonomy the vehicles have achieved or where the boundaries of their operation will be.
The number of self-driving XC90s roaming the road should reach 100 by the end of the year.
The news comes just after Ford Motor Co. announced its plan to offer rides to customers in cars that can operate without humans present by 2021 — indeed, cars that will lack basic human-facing controls such as steering wheels and foot brakes.
The Uber rides operating in Pittsburgh, where the company has a partnership with the long-operating automated driving program at Carnegie Mellon University, will work a little differently. With employees sitting in the cars and taking notes on performance, the program will be very much a test. Computers in the backseat will help fill out complicated, changing maps that combine standard road information such as speed and traffic signal location with fluid details about issues like potholes and construction. The vehicles will be retrofitted instead of factory designed to drive themselves.
That’s the same approach as Otto, a San Francisco Bay Area company working on retrofitting semi-trucks to drive themselves, and one of the newest additions to Uber’s corporate umbrella. The company announced its acquisition of Otto on Aug. 18, and Kalanick said Uber used Otto’s retrofitting techniques to prep the Volvos for testing.
For now, rides in the self-driving Ubers in Pittsburgh will be free. In the future, Kalanick told Bloomberg Businessweek, the cost of riding in an automated Uber might become lower than the cost of driving in a private vehicle.
That’s a key feature many self-driving automakers are focusing on. When cars are able to drive themselves, people won’t necessarily need to own a car in order to get around — they might be able to simply buy rides in self-driving vehicles, and potentially even share them with other riders to improve the efficiency of the entire transportation system. That could either reduce congestion or simply fit more people into existing infrastructure without requiring upgrades.
It might also change the way people get around. Some experts have noted that automated transport implies that new options for mobility will extend to people who are cut off from them now, such as the poor, the elderly, the young and individuals with disabilities. And if transportation becomes cheaper and more efficient, some might choose to go farther, adding more vehicle miles traveled to an already taxed transportation system.
Still, the systems are up against regulatory barriers. Having humans in the driver’s seat ready to take over would likely satisfy existing laws and regulations, but going further with the technology will mean changing the way government approaches transportation. Federal safety standards require vehicles to have steering wheels, for example. Some states might outright prohibit cars from driving without humans for the time being. Members of Congress have pursued consumer protections for the privacy of data as well as protections from cyberthreats.
All that is in the future. In Pittsburgh, the technology is hitting the ground.