Just when we boldly announced that self-driving cars would be making their appearance on city streets in the United States by 2021, it turns out we weren't bold enough.
The very next day, Uber announced a very ambitious plan to begin fielding self-driving cars in Pittsburgh before the end of August. Initially, the self-driving cars in Pittsburgh will all be modified versions of the Volvo XC90 SUV outfitted with Uber's self-driving electronics.
But Uber and Volvo are both going a great deal farther than just putting some cars into service. Uber also announced that it had acquired Otto, a company that has begun making self-driving modification kits for trucks. Otto has also created a logistics network that allows truckers to find and deliver loads.
Along with the Otto autonomous truck technology, Uber also gets Otto's development team and intellectual property, which will allow the company to transfer what it's learned about self-driving trucks into autonomous cars.
Uber announced that Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski will lead the autonomous vehicle efforts for both companies.
At the same time, Uber also announced a $300 million joint development project with Volvo to develop self-driving cars, and testing will begin in Pittsburgh this month. Volvo will make specially configured cars for Uber to modify and also make some identically configured cars for its own self-driving car effort.
"The development work will be conducted by Volvo Cars engineers and Uber engineers in close collaboration," Volvo said in its official statement.
A source at Uber, speaking on background, told eWEEK that Uber also will be adding Ford Fusion cars to the autonomous vehicle tests. "Getting to the future is important; that's why we're partnering with Volvo," the source said.
Pittsburgh was selected as the site for the pilot because of is the home of both Uber's Advanced Technology Center and of Carnegie Mellon University's robotics lab, which is doing significant research in autonomous vehicles.
It's currently unclear whether Uber itself will develop autonomous trucks or whether Otto will continue its current efforts to develop add-on kits and logistics software. But it wouldn't be surprising if Uber decided to become a major force in this area, along with ride sharing.
Self-driving trucks are, if anything, more important to the overall autonomous vehicle landscape in the near future than are cars. This is because autonomous vehicles used in freight hauling have the potential to significantly improve safety and produce measurable fuel savings and other efficiencies.
In addition, autonomous trucks appear to be farther along in development than are self-driving cars.