Uber’s self-driving taxis will get their first real-world test in Pittsburgh this month, with the semi-autonomous vehicles assigned at random to customers using the company’s app. According to a report from Bloomberg, the test fleet will consist of modified Volvo XC90 SUVs, with each car supervised by a human in the driver’s seat (a legal requirement) as well as a co-pilot taking notes. The trips themselves will be free, with a tablet in the backseat informing the passenger about the car’s capabilities.
Pittsburgh has been the home of Uber’s self-driving ambitions since 2014, when the company began its quest to poach engineers from the robotics department of the city’s Carnegie Mellon University. By early 2016, says Bloomberg, Uber had a team of hundreds of engineers, roboticists, and mechanics at its Advanced Technologies Center. Self-driving test vehicles were soon spotted around the city, and in May, the company released its first official photo of a prototype vehicle — a modified Ford Fusion.
The company has iterated quickly since then, and this month’s deployment of semi-autonomous vehicles to actual (non-paying) customers is a significant step. Tesla’s Autopilot software has been slowly increasing its functionality for drivers (despite a fatal crash in July that’s currently being investigated by the NHTSA), and Google’s self-driving fleet has been undergoing extensive testing, albeit with custom cars limited to speeds of 25 miles per hour. However, with this pilot program Uber is testing a rudimentary version of its final vision for self-driving cars: to replace its one million plus human drivers.
As Bloomberg reports, full autonomy for Uber’s vehicles is still a way off. For now, supervising engineers will sit with “their fingertips on the wheel,” with chimes sounding when they need to take control of the car — like on bridges, for example. Volvo has so far delivered a “handful” of the self-driving test vehicles, with 100 due by the end of the year. The automaker also announced today that it has signed a $300 million agreement with Uber to develop a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021 — the same target set by Ford for its own self-driving car, announced earlier this week. The future, it seems, is coming on fast.