Uber Enlists Volvo, Otto to Develop Autonomous Cars, Trucks

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2016-08-20 Print this article Print
Uber Self-Driving Trucks

Mercedes Benz has been experimenting with such trucks for years, and Freightliner, a division of Daimler, which also owns Mercedes Benz, has already begun testing a licensed autonomous truck on highways in the United States.

The real tests of autonomous cars in the United States, however, will begin in Pittsburgh. Initially the cars will be self-driving but they will be overseen by an engineer in the driver's seat and a researcher will come along to take notes on vehicle performance.

Uber customers will be able to summon a self-driving car using the same Uber app that they use now, but when their ride arrives, they may find that their usual Uber driver and car have been replaced by an autonomous car and researchers. A benefit to the rider, beyond the excitement, may be that the ride is free, according to some sources.

At this point, Uber isn't saying how long the Pittsburgh pilot program will continue, nor are they saying whether it will expand to other cities. However, the rapid development of self-driving trucks will likely continue in that area, and those advances will feed into Uber's automotive efforts as well.

What appears to be happening is that the economics of business uses of autonomous vehicles are now driving the development efforts. When self-driving cars first started making their appearance, they were seen as luxury items in expensive cars and they appeared one feature at a time.

This is why Tesla was able to quietly upgrade its cars to nearly autonomous status and why some other car makers, such as Acura and Toyota, are quietly adding self-driving features.

But there are some strong financial incentives to achieve real autonomy. In trucking, it's hard to find reliable drivers and harder to keep them, and there are significant limitations to their efficiency because drivers need things like sleep and federally mandated rest periods. Urban transportation has challenges of its own, which means Uber can both save money and be more efficient by replacing some drivers with robots.

The advantages to non-commercial drivers are that they will gain access to those technologies and will realize the benefits much sooner than if self-driving features remained playthings for luxury car drives.

Eventually, autonomous vehicles will become the standard for certain types of driving in certain locations, perhaps on major highways or in urban cores where only autonomous vehicles might be allowed. Meanwhile, the shift to autonomy is already happening, and while I've learned my lesson about predicting the pace of progress, we can assume that it won't be long now.




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