The launch of Uber’s self-driving pilot program marks the public unveiling of the company’s secretive work in autonomous vehicles and the first time self-driving cars have been so freely available to the U.S. public.
More than two years ago Uber – like most in the car business – identified autonomous driving technology as the springboard for the next stage of growth.
The aggressive San Francisco-based startup has already shaken up the world’s taxi services, earning a valuation of $68 billion. It plans ultimately to replace many of its 1.5 million drivers with autonomous vehicles.
But it is not as if robots are taking over the Steel City. There will be only four self-driving vehicles available to passengers, to start, and two people will sit in the front to take over driving when the car cannot steer itself.
During a ride of about one hour, Reuters observed the Uber car safely – and for the most part smoothly – stop at red lights and accelerate at green lights, travel over a bridge, move around a mail truck and slow for a driver opening a car door on a busy street. All without a person touching the controls.
By integrating self-driving cars with its ride-services app, Uber may be the first introduction to autonomous cars that many people will have.”If Uber scores a home run with this it’s going to be wonderful for the planet,” said Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. “The reason is we will see a much safer world and much more efficient world where we have to use less energy to move people around.”
Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet consists of Ford Fusion cars outfitted with 3D cameras, global positioning systems (GPS) and a technology called lidar that uses lasers to assess the shape and distance of objects, mounted somewhat crudely to the vehicle’s roof. The company is also outfitting Volvo SUVs that will be added to the fleet.
The cars do drive themselves, but during Reuters’ ride-along, the Uber driver in the front seat took control, according to company protocol, to allow pedestrians to cross the street, maneuver through a construction zone and make a left turn across traffic at an intersection. An Uber engineer sat in the passenger seat, occasionally adjusting the speed of the car, which mostly drove slowly.