Uber execs have in the past been very open about their aim to rapidly adopt the use of self-driving cars over the coming years as they become viable. Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick even said he’d buy 500,000 self-driving Teslas if the company could produce them by 2020.
It seems that these comments weren’t simply musings on where the industry was headed over the next decade or two, but rather immediately relevant ones, as the company will apparently be rolling out specially modified, self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs in the Pittsburgh market later this month.
Not next year, not 5 years from now, but rather in just a few weeks. Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick was fairly blunt about the matter in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek: “We are going commercial. This can’t just be about science.”
The new LIDAR-equipped Volvo XC90s of course won’t truly be autonomous per se (not yet), but rather, like Google’s various self-driving car programs in cities around the US, will be chaperoned by a human driver who’ll be able to take over in case of problems, and by a co-pilot who observes. A number of cameras, radar, and GPS receivers feature in the new vehicles’ self-driving sensor suite in addition to the LIDAR.
The Bloomberg coverage provides some details on the setup, noting that the “drivers” are “professionally trained engineers (who) sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening.”
The company’s engineering director, Raffi Krikorian, noted that: “The goal is to wean us off of having drivers in the car, so we don’t want the public talking to our safety drivers.”
Notably, Uber riders in Pittsburgh that end up paired (randomly, apparently) with one of the self-driving Volvos will actually be getting a free ride — for the time being. Rather than being charged at the local rate ($1.05 per mile + time-change, etc), those enjoying the experience won’t be charged at all.
According to Kalanick, prices will eventually fall low enough that “the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car.” Presumably, that means that they’ll be strong competition, rather than a monopoly.
The pilot in Pittsburgh will make use of around 100 of the sensor-loaded, self-driving Volvo XC90s. As we reported earlier this year, Uber and Volvo Cars (among others) signed a pact publicly that calls for $300 million to be spent to develop road-ready, fully autonomous vehicles by the year 2021 — the same year Ford recently highlighted.
Interestingly, since road-testing in Pittsburgh began in May, there have yet to any “fender benders.” Obviously, this flawless record won’t last forever, as noted by Krikorian: “We’re interacting with reality every day. It’s coming.”
The question of how long the company’s self-driving taxis can operate without an accident is an interesting one. As the company is using a somewhat distinct approach, it’ll be instructive to compare against the approaches of others.
Here’s an overview of that: “Over the past year and a half, the company has been creating extremely detailed maps that include not just roads and lane markings, but also buildings, potholes, parked cars, fire hydrants, traffic lights, trees, and anything else on Pittsburgh’s streets. As the car moves, it collects data, and then using a large, liquid-cooled computer in the trunk, it compares what it sees with the preexisting maps to identify (and avoid) pedestrians, cyclists, stray dogs, and anything else … Uber cars have Global Positioning System sensors, but those are only accurate within about 10 feet; Uber’s systems strive for accuracy down to the inch.”