RIDE-HAILING service Uber says it will start hauling passengers with self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh in the next several weeks.
The company says its autonomous Ford Fusions will have human backup drivers but will carry passengers just like normal Uber vehicles.
Uber has a self-driving research lab in Pittsburgh and is working on autonomous technology.
Also yesterday, Uber and Volvo announced a US$300 million deal for Volvo to provide SUVs to Uber for autonomous vehicle research. Eventually the Volvo SUVs will be part of the self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh. Volvo will develop base vehicles for research and both companies will develop autonomous vehicles on their own.
The ride-hailing company also announced that it is acquiring a self-driving startup called Otto that has developed technology allowing big rigs to drive themselves.
The maneuvers are intended to significantly accelerate Uber into the quest to deploy self-driving vehicles to the public. It’s also the latest tie-up between Silicon Valley, ride-hailing firms and major automakers.
Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, has said the ride-sharing company’s future — indeed, the future of all transport — is driverless. The deals are a bold down payment on that vision, one characteristic of Uber, a firm valued in the billions.
With the acquisition of Otto, Uber gets a fast infusion of self-driving expertise, including the co-founder of Otto Anthony Levandowski.
Self-driving technology is not ready for the masses. Hurdles include software that is not yet good enough for public rollout, safety concerns raised by state and federal regulators, and uncertainty over society’s readiness to trust robot drivers.
But the race is on. Large tech and auto firms suggest they could start selling self-driving cars within three to five years.
If history is any guide, that push will begin with high-end models that few people can afford. Uber’s vast on-demand auto fleet could presumably bring the technology to ordinary people more quickly.
Uber, however, isn’t alone in the race for autonomous vehicles. It’s not even a leader.
The company’s primary US competitor, Lyft, received a US$500 million investment from GM earlier this year. Those two companies said they plan to put self-driving vehicles into Lyft’s fleet on a small scale sometime in the next year. GM also bought itself some self-driving expertise in March with the acquisition of a company called Cruise Automation.
This week, Ford Motor Co announced — in Silicon Valley, not Detroit — that it intends to have a self-driving vehicle on the road by 2021. The car will have neither a steering wheel nor pedals and will be rolled out for commercial ride-hailing services, not directly to consumers.
Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc is even further ahead in pursuing driverless cars that offer passengers little control beyond an emergency stop button.