Within the next month, Uber will add a small number of autonomous driving Volvo XC 90 SUVs to its fleet in Pittsburgh. They will be randomly assigned. Whenever someone requests a ride with Uber, he or she may get to ride in one of the autonomous cars. If that is the case, the ride will be free during an an introductory period. Inside, the rider will find a licensed professional driver behind the wheel and a software engineer taking notes on the operation of the self driving systems during the journey.
This means that Uber will beat Tesla, Google, Ford, Chevrolet and other major manufacturers to market with self driving cars for ride hailing or ride sharing duty. Quite a coup for Uber, which manufacturers no vehicles and says it has no interest in doing so. Why is all this happening in Pittsburgh? Quite simply because it is home to Carnegie Mellon University, an institution that has led the way in industrial robotics for more than a decade. Its graduates can be found at the highest levels in such companies as Apple, Google, Tesla, Faraday Future and any others pursuing self driving technology,
Uber’s autonomous driving team is headed by John Bares, who ran CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years before founding Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh based company that makes components for self-driving industrial robots used in mining, farming, and the military. He was approached by Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, on several occasions to come work for Uber, but he turned him down each time. Eventually, Bares did move to Uber and rapidly developed a team consisting of hundreds of top flight engineers and robotics experts. There were even a few old fashioned auto mechanics with grease under their fingernails on the team.
Uber’s goal was simple — replace the more than 1 million human drivers currently working for Uber with robots. Once that happens, Kalanick says the price of an Uber trip will be lower than the cost of making the same trip in a private automobile, even in suburban and rural areas. That might seem like a dangerous market trend for car companies, but Hakan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo cars says, “We see it as an opportunity.” Volvo will supply Uber with 100 self driving XC 90’s by the end of 2016 as part of a $300,000,000 deal between the two companies. Their partnership is intended to lead to the production of fully autonomous cars by 2021.
Uber is deep into creating a self driving ride hailing service. With so much competition from top flight companies like Google and Tesla (and possibly Apple), developing an autonomous vehicle “is basically existential for us,” Kalanick says. Last month, his company purchased autonomous truck start-up Otto, formed by a group of engineers who had been working on the Google car but were dismayed at the slow pace of its development. “We were really excited about building something that could be launched early,”says Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of Otto.
The technology Otto is working on will allow long haul tractor trailers to operate together more like a train. By drastically reducing the distance needed between trucks, aerodynamic drag can be slashed, leading to higher fuel economy. The software will also allow human drivers to crawl in back and go to sleep on long journeys, reducing labor costs for fleet operators. The advances make by the Otto team will be incorporated into Uber’s own suite of autonomous driving hardware and software.
Tesla is racing to develop fully autonomous cars. Most observers believe the Model 3 — which may go into production late next year — will be capable of driving itself. Elon Musk has talked publicly about his company getting involve in ride hailing and ride sharing services. Chevrolet has hinted that its upcoming Bolt will be offered first to Lyft drivers before going on sale to members of the general public.
But Uber will always be known as the company that got there first. Whether it will thrive in the withering heat of of the competition to come remains to be seen.
Source: Bloomberg Photo credit: Uber