Although it could be years before autonomous cars are available to consumers, self-driving cars are on their way to Pittsburgh in the next few weeks to pick up Uber customers, according to the Associated Press. The Uber cars — which will have humans behind the wheel to prevent accidents — will be free, instead of the standard $1.30-per-mile local rate.
Uber customers in downtown Pittsburgh will be able to summon the autonomous cars from their phones. The fleet is comprised of specially modified Volvo XC90 SUVs, which use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers to get around.
Uber made a $300 million deal to partner with Volvo to provide SUVs for Uber’s research. Although Volvo will create base vehicles for research, the companies will develop self-driving vehicles individually. Max Chaikin writes for Bloomberg Businessweek that the two companies plan to launch a fully autonomous car that will be road-ready by 2021. He notes that Uber has no intention of manufacturing its own cars, but will create kits for vehicles.
Uber’s CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick reportedly has hired may experts on self-driving vehicles from Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has been doing a lot of work on autonomous vehicles. CMU is based in Pittsburgh.
Kalanick disagrees with many analysts who think self-driving cars are decades away. “We are going commercial,” he said. “This can’t just be about science.”
John Bares, formerly the head of CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center, and the founder of Carnegie Robotics, joined Uber in January 2015. He told Bloomberg that Uber’s goal is to replace more than 1 million human drivers with “robot drivers” as soon as possible.
Each of the Pittsburgh cars will have a tablet computer in the back seat that will tell customers they’re in a self-driving car. Uber Engineering Director Raffi Krikorian elaborated, “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.”
Other Uber Projects
Uber plans to work with other automakers as well. Last month, it finalized an agreement to purchase Otto, a driverless truck startup founded earlier this year. That project includes engineers from such companies as Google, Apple, and Tesla.
Otto has a kit that makes it possible for big-rig trucks to drive themselves on highways, to give drivers time to take a nap. That program is being tested in the San Francisco area. By acquiring Otto, Uber gains access to the data from Otto’s own laser detection system, to make Uber’s self-driving mapping and navigations systems better, Kalanick said.
The Challenge of Bridges
One challenge for Uber’s autonomous cars is when they have to go over bridges, and Pittsburgh has about 500 of them. The problem is that there are few environmental cues (such as buildings or parked cars) on bridges, and Uber’s highly detailed maps depend on such data. Thus on bridges, the Uber autonomous cars have a hard time figuring out exactly where they are.