Straight out of a futuristic sci-fi novel, Uber will offer rides in autonomous Ford Fusions to their users in Pittsburgh.
The company announced recently that in just a few short weeks, customers can elect to take part in a test program by summoning one of the self-driving cars. Human backup drivers will be placed in the vehicles to manage any unforeseen problems that might arise due to the fact that all the kinks have yet to be worked out of the technology.
While several other companies are currently testing autonomous vehicles on public roads, none of them allows the general public to ride along. Uber will offer its autonomous rides for free as an incentive to customers.
With no plans to offer autonomous rides in other cities anytime soon, Uber will -for now- keep their self-driving vehicles exclusively in Pittsburgh, where the company also has a self-driving research lab. The San Francisco-based company has expanded wildly since its startup seven years ago. And CEO Travis Kalanick, communicated to the Associated Press that wide-spread and mainstream use of the technology is an important primary goal for Uber. He points out that catching a ride with a self-driving vehicle will be significantly less expensive than owning a vehicle, thus completely altering transportation as we know it.
Bryant Walker Smith is a professor at the University of South Carolina who studies the technology of autonomous vehicles. He says that by using human backup drivers, essentially Uber is just letting the public in on the testing of the technology.
Uber has further declared their intent to be moguls of the autonomous vehicle industry by working on the acquisition of Otto, a startup concentrating on self-driving 18-wheelers, which will allow the company to get into the business of moving goods and freight.
This is in addition to a $300 million pairing with Volvo to provide vehicles and technology. Together, these two deals may propel Uber ahead of its chief competitor, Lyft, which received a $500 million investment from General Motors earlier this year.
These deals are all just a portion of the ones being made among Silicon Valley tech companies, ride-hailing companies, and auto manufacturers as they jockey for front runner in the self-driving vehicle race.
Smith is not surprised by Uber’s decision to be the first to move passengers with self-driving vehicles, given their previous record of reaching into uncharted territories with little or no regulation. He also surmises that backup drivers may be required by local Pittsburgh law, or at least by Pittsburgh’s winding, hilly roads and snowy winters. Snow on the road would mislead a self-driving vehicle’s lane-tracking sensors.
Though Kalanick concedes that the industry is still not ready to dispense with the human driver altogether, the competition to be the first company to do so, has certainly heated up.
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