Uber customers in Pittsburgh who request a ride from the ride sharing service may find themselves riding in a specially prepared Volvo XC90 that can drive itself. Passengers will ride in a self-driving vehicle chaperoned by a human driver behind the wheel ready to take control of the car if necessary and an engineer monitoring the operation of the autonomous system. This will mark the first time a self-driving car has been used in commercial service in the United States.
Uber’s self-driving car program has been under the stewardship of John Bares since January, 2015. Bares was head of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years before he left to start Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes components for self-driving industrial robots used in mining, farming, and the military.
“I turned him [Kalanick] down three times. But the case was pretty compelling.” Bares says. Once he joined Uber, he quickly put together a team consisting of hundreds of engineers, robotics experts, and few old fashioned auto mechanics. The mission was nothing less that to replace Uber’s 1 million human drivers with robotic drivers as soon as possible. The message is, if you drive for Uber, you should keep your resumé up to date and your eyes open for other lines of work.
Pittsburgh is the center of the Uber self-driving experiment because that is where the talent is. Carnegie Mellon is a world leader in autonomous systems. Its graduates are working on the Google car and are in high demand at any company planning to offer self-driving cars, including Apple and Tesla. Earlier in the year, a Tesla Model S loaded with cameras and sensors, presumably a test mule for Autopilot 2.0, was spotted testing in Pittsburgh.
So far, Uber has just a few specially modified Volvo XC90s ready for commercial service, but it expects to have 100 of them by the end of the year. The hardware at the heart of its self-driving system includes cameras, radar, lidar, GPS receivers, and a liquid cooled computer mounted in the rear.
Uber is moving fast. “We are going commercial,” says CEO Travis Kalanick. “This can’t just be about science.” Last month, it purchased Otto, a start-up company that is working to bring self-driving long haul trucks to market. In theory, its technology will allow truck drivers to crawl in back and nap while the trucks are on the highway. Uber will take over and re-brand that business and incorporate the Otto technology into its own self-driving systems.
Otto’s founders were all previously members of the Google car program, but grew impatient with the slow, plodding pace of development at Google. They wanted an opportunity to showcase their talents much sooner than they could if they remained at Google. “We were really excited about building something that could be launched early,” says Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of Otto.
Kalanick is clearly looking to be the first to begin offering a self-driving ride hailing service. He intends to beat Tesla, Apple, Google, Ford, and Genera Motors to the punch. “Nobody has set up software that can reliably drive a car safely without a human,” he says in an oblique reference to Tesla’s Autopilot system. “We are focusing on that.” Developing an autonomous vehicle, he adds, “is basically existential for us.”
At first, trips in the self-driving Volvos will be free. Uber’s standard local rate is $1.30 per mile but Kalanick says eventually prices will be so low that the cost per mile will be cheaper in a self-driving Uber than in a private car, even in rural areas. “That could be seen as a threat,” says Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson. “We see it as an opportunity.”