Almost defying predictions, Uber may have finally designed the perfect self-driving car. The company is all set to test self-driving Uber vehicles for the first time ever in Pittsburgh later this month.
Meet the Autonomous Volvo XC90s
Uber customers in Pittsburgh, starting as early as this month, will be able to call a self-driving car using the usual Uber app on their smartphones. When a request is made, Uber will randomly assign a self-driving car to a rider. For the time being, rides in self-driving cars will be for free.
Uber’s self-driving car is a custom-modified Volvo XC90s SUV. Unlike the regular Volvo, this one is equipped with dozens of sensors, cameras, GPS receivers, radars, and even lasers. About 100 of these Volvos will hit the streets of Pittsburgh later this month.
The Volvo XC90s will have a human driver in the driving seat, most likely an engineer from the developing team. However, the human will not be doing the driving. Instead, the human is there to offer minimal manual input and take the wheel if things go sideways. Uber, unlike Google or Tesla, has outfitted the cars with self-driving kits, rather than building an autonomous vehicle from scratch.
Uber and Volvo partnered up earlier this year and pledged some $300 million towards developing self-driving cars. However, this is not an exclusive partnership. Uber will be joining other auto brands and introducing new vehicles to its autonomous fleet.
Uber has no plans to mass-produce a self-driving car, unlike Google or Tesla. The company’s goal is to replace its one million and more human drivers with programmable robots.
When Uber customers in Pittsburgh get in self-driving cars later this month, they will be participating in a major milestone of the auto and robotics industries. Bigger companies better known for innovation—Google, Apple, and Tesla—have tried for years to develop a problem-free self-driving car. Tesla has managed to launch the Autopilot feature, which in recent times have been controversially involved in a number of crashes. No one expects a viable self-driving car to be available for at least another decade. Uber, it seems, has raced past the doubts.
The autonomous car can be called a product of Uber and the robotics department of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon has produced a number of big names in the robotics field, especially in the self-driving department. About two years ago, Travis Kalanick, co-founder and CEO of Uber, came to town in search of talent to form a self-driving research department for Uber. He found the robotics researcher Sebastian Thrun, who created the self-driving car project at Google. The other big name Kalanick managed to recruit is Chris Urmson, a former head of the Google self-driving car project and a grad student at Carnegie Mellon.
The autonomous car project is largely the direct result of Uber partnering up with Otto, a startup that specializes in driverless trucks. Otto has attracted a number of engineers who have worked with top tech companies like Google and Apple in its efforts to make self-driving vehicles ready for the market.
Otto’s signature product is a robotic system that allows big commercial trucks to steer without manual input on highways. The truck driver doesn’t need to provide manual input, and can even take a nap if desired. This self-driving truck project is currently undergoing testing in San Francisco. It’s this technology that has provided the foundation for Uber’s self-driving cars. Otto and Uber have plans to launch an expanded Uber-like auto trucking business in the immediate future.
Exact details behind the self-driving project are still kept tightly under wraps. However, it’s safe to say that by partnering up with Otto, Uber may have won its heated battle with Google to develop a self-driving car.