Uber riders to be able to hail self-driving cars for first time

Uber passengers in Pittsburgh will be able to hail self-driving cars for the first time within the next few weeks as the taxi firm tests its future vision of transportation in the city, reports The Guardian.

The company said on Thursday that an unspecified number of autonomous Ford Fusions will be available to pick up passengers as with normal Uber vehicles. The cars won’t exactly be driverless – they will have human drivers as backup – but they are the next step towards a fully automated fleet.

Passengers will be able to opt in if they want a self-driving car, and rides will be free to those willing to do it, a spokesman said.

Uber, which has a self-driving research lab in Pittsburgh and has been testing the cars around the city in recent months, has no immediate plans to deploy self-driving cars beyond the Pittsburgh experiment.

It’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, has said the ride-sharing company’s future and indeed the future of all transportation is driverless.

“When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. You basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away,” Kalanick said at the Code Conference in 2014, shortly after Google unveiled its self-driving car prototype.

The Silicon Valley company also announced on Thursday that it is working together with Swedish carmaker Volvo on self-driving cars, signing a $300m (£230m) deal.

The agreement will allow the two firms to pool resources, and initially expand the autonomous capabilities of Volvo’s XC90 SUV, which is already one of the most advanced road cars available with various autonomous safety systems is and due to begin self-driving trials in London in 2017.

Vehicle manufacturers across the world are racing to produce systems capable of driving themselves in among regular traffic. Volvo, owned by China’s Geely, has been experimenting with self-driving systems for years, with motorway road trains, robot mining trucks and lorries.

At the same time, taxi services, including Uber, see autonomous vehicles as a way to cut the cost of operating by removing the human driver from the equation, but require help with development and the costs of producing such complex vehicles.

Silicon Valley firms are posing a potential threat to traditional car manufacturers, with the likes of Tesla launching its own cars under the technology model, while Google and others develop their own cars without being forced to rely on companies such as Ford or Volvo.

How the success of a taxi service such as Uber with automated cars would impact traditional automotive manufacturers remains to be seen. Volvo’s chief executive, Håkan Samuelsson, is certain that high-end car buyers will flock to buy self-driving cars, while Uber’s vast on-demand car fleet could potentially bring the technology to ordinary people more quickly.

Toyota has said it is investing an undisclosed sum in Uber, while German rival Volkswagen has said it will back Gett, a ride-hailing company. General Motors has already acquired a $500m stake in Uber’s rival, Lyft. Ford recently said it would look to build a “high volume” of driverless cars for ride-sharing services.

Uber will purchase Volvos for its development of driverless control systems. Volvo will operate the same vehicles, developing a system designed to be owned and used by a driver, partly under the guise of safety. This reflects the company’s ambitious plan to ensure no one is either seriously injured or killed in one of its cars from 2020, which it says is only possible by integrating automated technology.

“Autonomous driving is key. For this you need software to develop and be safe,” Volvo’s chief executive, Hakan Samuelsson, told Reuters.

Bought by Geely from Ford in 2010, Volvo has long been a pioneer in car safety having invented the three-point seat belt and making it standard equipment in 1959.

“Volvo is a leader in vehicle development and best-in-class when it comes to safety,” said Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive.

The joint interment will provide funds for sensor and hardware research, as well as the software required to spot obstacles and drive the car. But the deal will not stop either party from striking further deals with other companies, with staff retained by their respective companies.

Uber also recently acquired a self-driving startup created by several former Google autonomous car researchers called Otto that has developed technology allowing big rigs to drive themselves. Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, one of the founding fathers of Google’s autonomous technology, will join Uber instantly infusing self-driving expertise into the company’s efforts and accelerating its development of autonomous systems.