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.
Uber Enlists Volvo, Otto to Develop Autonomous Cars, 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.