Uber riders in Pittsburgh can summon a car almost capable of driving on its own.
This week, a fleet of self-driving Ford Mondeos began picking up Uber riders taking part in a test programme. While the vehicles have features that allow them to navigate on their own, an Uber engineer sits in the driver’s seat and can seize control if things go awry.
Uber’s programme is the latest move in a heated race between tech companies in Silicon Valley and traditional carmakers to perfect fully driverless cars.
Competitors such as Nissan and Google are investing hundreds of millions of dollars and logging millions of kilometres test driving autonomous vehicles, but Uber is the first company in the US to make self-driving cars available to the public.
“We think it can help with congestion, we think it can make transportation cheaper and more accessible for the vast majority of people,” says Raffi Krikorian, director of Uber Advanced Technologies Centre in Pittsburgh.
Removing the cost of the driver is one way to make rides more affordable. But that prospect didn’t sit well with some Uber customers.
“It scares me not to have a driver there with an Uber,” says Claudia Tyler, a health executive.
A self driving Uber car drives across the ninth street bridge in downtown Pittsburgh last week. Picture/AP
A reporter from the Associated Press tried out the service. The ride through downtown Pittsburgh and over some bridges went smoothly, with the car waiting for oncoming traffic before making a turn and, at one point, stopping for a vehicle that was backing into a parking space. Parking, however, was a task the human driver had to perform.
Approaches to driverless technology differ. Google and Ford want to perfect the fully driverless car — no steering wheel, no pedals — before letting the public climb in for a ride. Others are adding autonomous features in phases, while relying on the driver to take over in certain circumstances.
Many experts predict that it will be years, if not decades, before the public is being driven around in fleets of fully driverless vehicles under any condition.
“Because vehicles are driving at 70 miles per hour (over 100km/h) on the highway, if something goes wrong, things could go very bad, very quickly,” says Carnegie Mellon engineering Professor Raj Rajkumar.
“This technology needs to be ultra-reliable before we can take the human out of the driving equation.”
NuTonomy, a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, got the jump on Uber three weeks ago when it began picking up passengers in self-driving taxis in Singapore. The company says its six taxis — with back-up drivers — haven’t had any accidents since the service launched.
The Uber vehicles are equipped with seven traffic-light detecting cameras, a radar system that detects different weather conditions and 20 spinning lasers that generate a continuous, 360 degree 3D map of the environment.
Uber officials hope the trial will teach them how to ease public fears of adopting the leading-edge technology.
“The Pittsburgh pilot is our opportunity for real-world testing, so that we can learn more about what makes riders feel safe and comfortable,” says Uber product manager Emily Bartel.
Uber’s Silicon Valley roots means it tends to pivot quickly and plan, experiment and adjust direction within weeks, in contrast to long-time carmakers such as General Motors or Toyota which have years-long timelines when bringing out new features, Rajkumar and Uber officials say.
When the drivers are removed from front seats, the cars will likely be restricted to driving in specific locations under good conditions at first.