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Think the autonomous car race is just between Tesla and Google? Think again, because Uber has leaped right into competition with their own full-scale rollout of self-driving cars. This move surprised everyone, not just those living in Pittsburgh, who are the first people to test-drive the new service.
Part of the commotion that surrounds the launch deals with how fast they have moved these cars onto the road, which is raising some concerns.
Driverless Ubers have arrived on the Pittsburgh streets with so much haste, initially it wasn’t even cleared by the state’s Department of Transportation’s special autonomous vehicle task force. This would normally be a cause for alarm in any other situation involving vehicle regulation and the DOT, however, Uber knows that safety is a priority when it comes to automated vehicles and has actually been working with PennDOT’s task force for some time.
On the surface, Uber has jumped the gun, but as it turns out, what they are doing is completely within the letter of the law, according the city of Pittsburgh. PennDOT’s biggest prerequisite for Uber’s driverless car launch is to have an actual driver sitting behind the wheel to override and correct any potential scenarios where the self-driving car could put anyone on the road in danger.
None-the-less, Uber is using it’s early adopter’s status to get their cars tested quickly under fairly loose restrictions, which PennDOT is sure to tighten up on before future entries inevitably follow.
All of this self-driving technology has been rapidly progressing over the past five years, and Pennsylvania is trying to lead the way in testing and regulating self-driving cars on the road. The PennDOT task force is supposed to be the regulatory and support group that will attract companies like Uber, Google, or General Motors (who has been working with Carnegie Mellon University since self-driving cars have been proposed in the technology sectors).
This is why Uber chose Pittsburgh as their test bed for their new and exciting venture. Uber has come right out and said that they want to get these autonomous cars out on the road, not only to capture the most market share, but also to eventually eliminate need to pay drivers and lower their auto insurance bills. Current Uber drivers and customers in the Pittsburgh area don’t see this happening anytime soon, though.
The topography of the city proves to be a difficult place for the sensors and camera angles that self-driving cars depend on for accurate navigation. There’s lots of elevation changes, street variations of sizes and overall conditions. There are also still limitations to how computers calculate risk, which is nowhere near as nuanced as what humans can accomplish.
There might come a time when the majority of the cars on the road are driverless, which would mean less variables on how the car will react while navigating the streets, but for today and the near future, there is always the concern about reaction times and decisions made by a computer. This concern extends to how autonomous cars interpret passenger directions, meaning, for example, how long will it be until customers can input special instructions or detours?
This is actually the title of Uber’s blog post that addresses their vision of the future. This dream of driverless automobiles extends beyond cab services. Uber has pulled a tractor-trailer company under their wing to expand this technology into the most road-tested sector of the automotive industry. Uber has also extended a deal with Volvo, who has been working on SUV models of self-driving vehicles.
This series of moves by the company is essentially their plans of assembling their “dream team” of engineers and experts who can use all the collective data and experience to make the first generation of automated cab services a serious and effective push for the normalization and proliferation of self-driving cars. This is good for all parties involved: the passenger, the company, and the city.
The challenge of developing cars that can handle all the narrow roads, hills, valleys, and often chaotic traffic in Pittsburgh could ultimately prove that Uber has what it takes to not only penetrate the market, but lead the industry in safety and technology. Volvo’s involvement should certainly quell some of that apprehension towards Uber’s launch into uncharted territory, as they are a brand that is synonymous with consumer advocacy and safety. Keep your eyes close to the development of Uber’s ‘dream team’ to see if other states will be next in-line.
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For those who don’t live in Pittsburgh, or feel squeamish about being a passenger in an autonomous car, for a limited time there’s another way to catch a free ride.
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video source: Bloomberg – “Here’s What It’s Like to Ride in Uber’s New Self-Driving Cars”