UBER, BUT FOR ROBOTS

Take that, Ford: Uber will have self-driving cars on the road this month

Self-driving cars are apparently no longer a thing of the future: You could hop in one this month—if you live in Pittsburgh, that is.

Just days after Ford announced that it plans to have autonomous vehicles for Uber-like trips on the road by 2021, it seems that Uber itself will beat it to the punch. A report from Bloomberg today (Aug. 18) says Uber will bring a fleet of self-driving Volvo SUVs to Pittsburgh within the month. Uber riders in the Steel City will be able to hail one of the cars and get a free trip.

These self-driving cars will be doing the bulk of the driving, but humans will still be required—at least for now. A person will be sitting in the driver’s seat with their fingertips on the wheel as the car drives itself, ready to take over as needed, and another Uber engineer will be riding shotgun, taking notes on a laptop, while every aspect of the car’s trip—inside and out—is recorded by cameras. While these rides will be free for anyone that wants one, it doesn’t sound quite as relaxing as the average Uber ride. No word yet on whether you’ll be able to give the car a rating once your trip is complete.

While Uber has penned a $300 million deal with Volvo for these SUVs, according to the Associated Press, it’s also said it’s not planning to work with just one car provider in the future. The self-driving Ford cars Uber showed off in May will also be part of this trial in Pittsburgh. (Volvo has previously said it plans to have self-driving cars available in Sweden by 2017.)

If you’re wondering why Pittsburgh: Uber’s research in the city dates back to 2014, when it hired away a group of prominent robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, and set up a self-driving car research facility down the road from their alma mater.

Uber also announced today that it had acquired Otto, a year-old startup aiming to build self-driving trucks, founded by Anthony Levandowski, an early engineer on Google’s self-driving car project. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Bloomberg that he envisions the company’s self-driving cars will eventually be able to provide affordable long-distance trips in rural areas, which Otto’s technology could supplement. It will also provide the backbone for an on-demand long-haul trucking service that Uber plans to start, according to Bloomberg.

While Uber has certainly thrown down the gauntlet in terms of timing to the litany of other startups and automakers trying to bring self-driving cars to the streets, it remains to be seen just how accurate and reliable these cars will be. Ford engineers previously told Quartz that the company would not rush to release or even announce anything around self-driving cars until it was certain it had a safe product, which is part of the reason its current target is five years away. Toyota has communicated similar sentiments. There’s no reason to believe that Uber’s system is not safe, but this passage from Bloomberg does give one pause:

On a recent weekday test drive, the safety drivers were still an essential part of the experience, as Uber’s autonomous car briefly turned un-autonomous, while crossing the Allegheny River. A chime sounded, a signal to the driver to take the wheel. A second ding a few seconds later indicated that the car was back under computer control. “Bridges are really hard,” Krikorian says. “And there are like 500 bridges in Pittsburgh.”

Bloomberg adds that, “Bridges, unlike normal streets, offer few environmental cues—there are no buildings, for instance—making it hard for the car to figure out exactly where it is.” Which does lead one to wonder how this system will work in Venice, Amsterdam, or just about anywhere that there aren’t a lot of “environmental cues.”

At least the rides will be free.

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