Thu | Jun 20, 2019

Free Uber ride with no driver - Self-driving technology expands with offer to public

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Uber employees stand by self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid cars during testing of the vehicles last Thursday in Pittsburgh.
Matt Grigsby, senior programme engineer at Otto, engages the self-driving big-rig truck during last Thursday’s demonstration in San Francisco.
Matt Grigsby (left), senior programme engineer at Otto, and Jacob Larry, operations staff at Otto, take a self-driving big-rig truck for a test drive on the highway in San Francisco, California, last Thursday.


The option to hail a ride in a self-driving car, which was science-fiction just a few years ago, will soon be available to Uber users in Pittsburgh, the first time the technology has been offered to the general public.

The company announced last Thursday that customers will be able to opt into a test programme and summon an autonomous Ford Fusion. However, since the technology has not been perfected, the cars will come with human backup drivers to handle any unexpected situations.

Although other companies, including Google, are testing self-driving cars on public roads, none offer rides to regular people. As an enticement, the autonomous rides will be free, the company said.


Uber, which has a self-driving research lab in Pittsburgh, has no immediate plans to deploy autonomous cars in other cities. But in an interview, CEO Travis Kalanick said development of the vehicles is paramount for the San Francisco company, which has grown exponentially after starting seven years ago.

"We've got to be laser-focused on getting this to market, because it's not a side project for us," he said. "This is everything. This is all the marbles for Uber."

Without drivers, the cost of hailing a ride will be cheaper than owning a car, changing the way we all get around, Kalanick has said.

By using human backup drivers, Uber is basically testing the technology and taking people along for the ride, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who studies self-driving technology. "Part of this is marketing in the sense that they're going to be doing continued research and development of these systems," he said.


Uber also announced that it was acquiring a start-up called Otto that has focused on developing self-driving big rigs and is stocked with big talent in the still small world of self-driving technology, including Anthony Levandowski, one of the field's pioneers. Kalanick said the acquisition signals Uber's intent to get into the movement of goods and freight.

In another deal, the company announced a US$300 million alliance with Volvo to supply vehicles and technology. The announcements may push it ahead of its prime competitor, Lyft, which earlier this year took a US$500 million investment from General Motors.

Those arrangements are part of a flurry of deals between Silicon Valley tech companies, traditional automakers and ride-hailing companies, as they vie for autonomous car leadership. Google has been testing self-driving cars on public roads since 2009 but has never offered large-scale rides to the public.

Timothy Carone, a Notre Dame professor who has written about the future of automation, noted that Uber is mitigating the risk with its own drivers - unlike Tesla Motors, which put semi-autonomous technology in the hands of individual customers.

"This is a way to get autonomous cars out there and accepted and increase the adoption rate," Carone said. "It will take a decade of testing before an 18-year-old can get in the car and tell it where to go."

Kalanick would not speculate on when Uber might be ready to dispense with the human driver, saying that full automation can only be used now in limited places with little traffic. That's different from the relative chaos of even a small downtown, much less a big city where drivers do not always follow the rules.