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Uber plans to carry passengers in autonomous vehicles without human backup drivers in about the same time frame as competitors, which expect to be on the road sometime next year.
Uber Advanced Technology Group leader Eric Meyhofer wouldn’t give a specific start date this week, but he said Uber would not deploy the driverless cars without human backups unless they were proven safe.
“Once we can check that box, which we call passing the robot driver’s licence test, that’s when we can remove the vehicle operator,” Meyhofer said in an interview at an auto industry investors conference in Detroit. “We’re going aggressively, too.”
Waymo, the name of the autonomous car unit of Alphabet’s Google, is testing on public roads in the Phoenix area without human backups and plans to carry passengers soon. General Motors’ Cruise Automation has promised to start sometime next year in an unspecified location.
Meyhofer said Volvo XC-90 SUVs are being prepared for the work. Uber Technologies has 215 test vehicles carrying passengers with human backups in Phoenix, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto. They travel 128000km each week gathering data and have given 50,000 paid rides.
San Francisco-based Uber started carrying passengers with autonomous vehicles in 2016, first with two Uber employees on board, Meyhofer said. The passenger documented the vehicle’s behaviour while the person on the driver’s side would intervene if the car needed help.
The vehicles have improved to the point where Uber has removed one human and now the backup driver enters data on a screen in rare cases, Meyhofer said.
The ride service has 1600 people working on autonomous vehicles in the four test locations.
Waymo said in November that it planned to carry passengers without human backups in a few months. The testing would be done in a small area covered by detailed three-dimensional maps.
Meyhofer said Uber would start in the same way, gradually expanding the size of the area as mapping was done and vehicles become more capable. At present, the cars were limited to 64km/h, Meyhofer said.
Such testing was likely to be done in warm-weather areas that did not get snow because snow covered the lane lines and could not be seen by cameras.
The developments on the road come as self-driving car technologies are being battled over in court.
Waymo alleges that one of its top self-driving car engineers, Anthony Levandowski, stole its trade secrets before founding a startup that he sold to Uber for $US680 million.
Uber denies the allegations.