If you live in Pittsburgh and use Uber, get ready to meet some robotic drivers later this month. Image: Getty
That's according to a detailed new report in Bloomberg Businessweek. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick revealed that the company plans to soon add driverless cars — complete with "dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers" — to its fleet in Pittsburgh. The goal in the long-run is to replace its millions of human drivers with autonomous vehicles.
The car army won't be completely devoid of humans, however. For now, the cars will also come with people in the driver's seat — they will just be there to make sure nothing goes terribly, horribly wrong, and to take over in scenarios where Uber's self-driving tech isn't yet reliable, such as when the car is crossing a bridge. Sitting shotgun, an observer will take notes on a laptop. Cameras inside the vehicle will record all of the goings on.
Riders will hail an Uber the usual way, but they will be assigned a driverless car at random. (One immediate benefit: The trips will be free, instead of the local rate of $US1.30 a mile, or $1 per kilometre.) When you get into a car, a tablet in the backseat will inform you that the car is being driven autonomously.
The announcement of the driverless fleet launch comes in tandem with news that Uber will team up with Volvo to develop autonomous cars. The $US300 million ($390 million) partnership between the automotive and Silicon Valley giants is already producing results — Uber's driverless Pittsburgh contingent will be stocked with custom Volvo XC90 SUVs.
But Bloomberg reports that while Uber is going with Volvo for now, it's not exclusive, and it "plans to partner with other automakers as it races to recruit more engineers". Earlier this week, Ford announced plans to bring its own autonomous car fleet — one that may be sold to ride-sharing services — to market by 2021.
The news of an operational fleet in Pittsburgh does change the autonomous car landscape. Big players — Google, Tesla, Uber itself — have been working on driverless car fleets for quite some time. With this announcement, Uber appears to have jumped out ahead of these giants, as well as regulators. But the company now has other things to worry about — namely, the safety of its driverless fleet. It's been insistent in the past that driverless cars can help save lives, but concerns linger. In May, a driver was killed while using Tesla's autopilot feature, and investigators said at the time they were looking into the role the feature played in the crash.
As Bloomberg notes, so far, no other company has put a self-driving car-sharing service into the hands of customers. In Pittsburgh, however, that's about to change. Let's hope the ransacking of Carnegie Mellon University's robotics lab was worth it!