Uber set to make semi-autonomous rides a reality in Pittsburgh

The ride-sharing company will begin testing semi-autonomous vehicles this month, part of a long-term goal to replace human drivers with robotic ones, according to a new report. 

Helena Soderpalm/Reuters/File
A new Volvo concept car based on Volvo and Geely's common new CMA platform is presented during the media event in Gothenburg, Sweden, in May. Uber will begin testing semi-autonomous custom Volvos to pick up passengers in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Uber's newest fleet will hit Pittsburgh’s streets this month, but there’s something a little different about the ride sharing company's latest venture.

Company co-founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick has been exploring the idea of self-driving cars since 2014. After two years of planning, he is finally poised to begin testing a fleet of semi-self-driving Uber vehicles in Pittsburgh, Penn.

"Travis had an idea that he wanted to do self-driving," Carnegie Robotics founder John Bares told Bloomberg. "I turned him down three times. But the case was pretty compelling."

The ride-sharing company's goal of replacing human drivers with robots ones comes as Uber's legal difficulties with drivers continue, as both sides navigate the new employer-employee relationships of the sharing economy. In June, the company announced a set of software updates, intended to quell driver complaints. Uber categorizes its drivers as independent contractors, rather than regular employees, contributing to two major lawsuits it has tentatively settled in California and Massachusetts. 

By early 2016, just one year after Mr. Bares joined Uber, he had already created a robust robotics and engineering division to work towards Kalanick’s goal. While many experts say that truly self-driving cars could be decades away, Kalanick argues that commercial motivations (such as Uber’s) could bring them to city streets far sooner than that.

"We are going commercial," Kalanick told Bloomberg Businessweek. "This can’t just be about science."

Kalanick's plan seems to have succeeded: Later this month, Uber will begin testing semi-autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. The fleet will use custom-made Volvos, according to Bloomberg, while the Associated Press reported that Uber would deploy Ford Fusions, days after Ford announced plans to produce a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021.

Ride requesters who opt-in to the semi-autonomous service will be met by vehicles with a human supervising in the driver's seat, ready to take the wheel if needed, and a co-pilot taking notes. For now, the randomly selected riders will get to their destination for free. 

Uber has ordered 100 of these modified vehicles, which carry GPS systems, lasers, cameras, radar, and other sensors, from Volvo. Most of the vehicles have not yet been delivered, but will arrive by the end of the year.

Uber and Volvo have signed an additional $300 million agreement to develop a fully autonomous car by 2021, Bloomberg reports. The ride sharing company also plans to partner with a number of other tech companies in order to expand their autonomous vehicle service.

Last month, Uber announced its purchase of driverless truck startup Otto, which employs engineers who have worked on driverless car projects at several major companies, including Google, Apple, and Tesla.

Since so many other companies are exploring autonomous vehicles, Kalanick says that expanding into that realm is essential to the survival of Uber's place in the ride-sharing industry.

"The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car]," Kalanick told Bloomberg. "Because if there is not, we're not going to have any business."

Earlier this month, Uber executives announced a $500 million investment in a mapping system that the company says will eventually facilitate autonomous Uber vehicles, and free it from reliance on rival Google's maps.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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