Tesla and Google have long been regarded as the leaders in driverless tech despite interest from both tech titans like Amazon and Apple as well as traditional automakers like GM and Ford. Uber is an under-the-radar player in that market though, and the dark horse company looks set to be the first one to put driverless commercial vehicles on the road – the company will have driverless Ubers available in Pittsburgh as a test market within a month.
Uber’s self-driving cars are not made under its own name plate – instead the company has signed deals with Volvo to take standard Volvo vehicles and add a sensor package that will allow those cars to drive themselves. (Uber is reportedly looking at other automakers for additional future vehicles.) Volvo will have 100 self-driving fully autonomous cars driving throughout Pittsburgh on behalf of Uber by the end of the year.
Uber’s journey to launching self-driving cars began near the end of 2014, when co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick flew to Pittsburgh on a mission to recruit dozens of autonomous vehicle engineers and other experts. Pittsburgh is home to a burgeoning technology center related to the esteemed Carnegie Mellon University. Kalanick was able to hire Carnegie Robotics founder and former CMU National Robotics Engineering Center director John Bares to head up the project.
Fast forward two years and Uber is ready to start a soft launch of road ready self-driving vehicles. It’s an amazing feat for a company that has simultaneously spent the last two years expanding to every corner of the country and many parts of the globe.
Uber’s cars have not had any accidents yet, but they aren’t perfect either. For instance, the company reports that the self-driving cars have a hard time crossing bridges on their own. For that reason, Uber’s self-driving cars in Pittsburg will still be monitored by a human safety driver. That driver will not do the driving unless the car signals that it needs the human to take over (as in the case of some bridge crossings).
Uber’s approach is something like a cross between Tesla’s and Google’s then. While the Tesla self-driving car accident was widely scrutinized, Google has not had any severe accidents in large part because its cars only go 25 miles per hour. Related: The Eagle Ford: Down But Not Out
Uber also recently bought a little-known privately held company called Otto, which focuses on building self-driving trucks. Uber is planning to expand into the delivery business in a challenge to the U.S. Post Office, Fedex, and UPS. Moreover, Uber’s purchase of Otto helped it to advance its driverless vehicle program. Otto was started by ex-Google engineers including some of those that helped pioneer Google’s current driverless car program. Those engineers left Google in January to start Otto, but Uber’s quick purchase of the company in July marks a change of direction for all involved. Now Uber has a top rate team of autonomous vehicle experts ready to change the way the world takes taxis and car services forever.
In some respects, it is not a huge surprise that Uber is pushing the envelope on autonomous vehicles. Famously hard-charging CEO Kalanick is not one to rest on his laurels and wait for the technology to be perfect. If the Pittsburgh trial period goes well, it’s likely that within a year or so, self-driving Uber vehicles will be available in numerous other cities across the country.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
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