Uber has launched the first self-driving taxi fleet in the US in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, striding ahead as companies such as Google, Tesla, Ford and GM race to develop autonomous vehicle technology.
The San Francisco-based company said it would have dozens of self-driving cars on the road by year-end, although the vehicles would still have human “drivers” who sit behind the wheel to intervene if needed.
Uber’s announcement comes a fortnight after the world’s first driverless taxi fleet was launched in Singapore, and follows a string of acquisitions and investments in driverless technologies at a time when automotive and technology companies are jockeying for position.
For Uber, self-driving vehicles are a long-term bet on what it believes will be the future of urban transport, and could eventually cut the cost of transport by eliminating the need for drivers.
The ride-hailing company has intensified its focus on autonomous technologies in recent months, acquiring Otto, a self-driving truck start-up, and partnering with Volvo to develop its next generation of self-driving cars.
Anthony Levandowski, who took the helm at Uber’s driverless research programme as part of the Otto deal, said that developing self-driving technology was “the most important thing we can be looking to do in the next 10 years”.
A string of high-profile hires has bolstered Uber, putting rival Google — one of the first companies to invest in driverless research — on the back foot. The recent departure from Google of Chris Urmson, who for years was a big proponent of the driverless car, has raised further questions about the future of Google’s driverless project.
Nidhi Kalra, a roboticist and information scientist at the Rand Corporation, said that Google has an advantage on the autonomy side, while Uber has the edge on the service side given its global user base. “I suspect that in fact Uber has the greater advantage because they already have the technical infrastructure and the client base,” she said.
Uber goes driverless
After raising more than $15bn from investors, Uber has become one of Silicon Valley’s best-funded private companies, with investors such as Google, Goldman Sachs and TPG.
Uber has invested heavily in autonomous research after establishing its Advanced Technologies Centre in Pittsburgh 18 months ago, and poaching roughly one-quarter of the staff from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics institute. The pace of investment has accelerated after Uber last month sold its Chinese unit, which had been heavily loss making.
Uber’s decision to put its Pittsburgh passengers directly into self-driving cars, even with a back-up driver, will test US regulation of the vehicles — an area where American policymakers have struggled to craft meaningful rules.
Many states and cities, including Pittsburgh, lack rules for autonomous vehicles, although the city’s officials have welcomed Uber’s self-driving tests. Earlier this year, a fatal accident in a Tesla vehicle that smashed into a truck while on autopilot raised concerns about the safety of autonomous and driving-assisted vehicles.
Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Centre, said that Pittsburgh had “ideal conditions” for testing because it was an old city with narrow roads and extreme weather. “We like to call Pittsburgh the double black diamond of driving,” he said. “If we really can master driving in Pittsburgh, we feel we have a good chance to master it in most other cities in the world.”
Uber’s initial self-driving fleet consists of more than a dozen Ford Fusion cars that it has modified with sensors.