Driverless Cars to Carry Uber Passengers in Pittsburgh
To many people, it is still just a dream to use a driverless car. But this dream is now becoming a reality for people in the American state of Pennsylvania.
The ride-sharing service Uber will start using self-driving cars in a few weeks to carry passengers around the city of Pittsburgh.
Many companies – including Google, Apple and the big U.S. carmakers - are currently testing driverless vehicles. But this is the first time the American public will actually get to use them.
Free rides for Uber testers
The ride service will start out with Ford Fusions equipped with self-driving technology. People using Uber will request the cars through their smartphones. Rides in the self-driving vehicles will be free while the system is tested in Pittsburgh. Each car will have a driver in front, as a safety measure, to take control of the vehicle if needed.
Nidhi Kalra is an information scientist with the not-for-profit RAND Corporation. She says Uber's driverless service will be important for the development of the technology. It will also give many people the chance to experience self-driving cars for the first time.
"It is exciting for the American public to be able to see up close what this technology looks and feels like. From a technical perspective, I think the advantage that Uber will have now is to understand how users interact with the autonomous vehicle technology that they are developing."
Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick said the project is an important step forward. But he added that a lot of work is needed in the development of autonomous vehicles.
"We're catching up fast, but we need to get to No. 1 quick," he told the Associated Press. "We've got to be laser-focused on getting this to market, because it's not a side project for us. This is everything."
Uber teams up with Volvo
Uber also announced a $300 million deal with an automobile manufacturer, Volvo, to cooperate on self-driving technology and supply vehicles. In the future, Volvo vehicles will be part of the driverless fleet in Pittsburgh.
Kalra believes driverless cars will be used by car-sharing services in other cities in the coming years.
"By 2020, I would expect that somewhere in the country – and maybe multiple places in the country – a public user is able to call an autonomous vehicle to take them from point A to point B."
But she said companies like Uber and its main competitor, Lyft, will have to consider several issues before expanding. These include laws regulating self-driving technology, population, climate and terrain – the shape and condition of the land.
As for the users, Kalra said they are likely to accept autonomous driving technology very fast.
"If the technology is demonstrably safe, and it behaves in a way that they expect drivers to behave, then I think people will get comfortable very quickly - because it offers so many other benefits."
Major U.S. automakers are hoping the public will quickly embrace the technology.
Self-driving cars to affect sales model
Ford recently announced plans to have a fully driverless vehicle on the road by 2021. At first, the car – which will have no steering wheel or pedal controls – will be sold to car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. Later, it will go on sale to everyone.
Kalra thinks the increasing development of self-driving vehicles and popularity of ride-sharing services means many people in the future will not want or need to own a car.
"And so that's the other trend. Is that it's suggesting that Detroit automakers are looking at a slightly different business model - where they are selling you the ability to get around, rather than just sell you a car. And that's a really new way of thinking about mobility in the American transportation system."
I'm Bryan Lynn.