Commentary

Uber Bringing Self-Driving Volvos To Pittsburgh Soon

Nowadays the distant future has a way of becoming tomorrow or the next day almost as quickly as you can hail a self-driving Uber — which is precisely what you’ll be able to do in downtown Pittsburgh by the end of this month if all goes the way Uber CEO Travis Kalanick says it will. 

“Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers,” writesBloomberg BusinessWeek’s Max Chafkin in a wide-ranging piece.

“Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021,” he continues. 

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Chafkin also writes about Uber’s acquisition of Otto, the 91-employee driverless truck startup. Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, formerly of Google’s autonomous car program, will also lead Uber’s driverless program when the deal closes. “I feel like we’re brothers from another mother,” Kalanick tells Chafkin about Levandowski.

In an interview with USA Today, “Kalanick said the idea with Otto is to provide owner-operator, long-haul truckers with in-car tech that will ‘help them maximize their asset,’ by allowing the truck to operate 24 hours a day with autonomous spells during which the driver could sleep,” write Brett Molina and Marco della Cava.

“Kalanick said the technology is necessary to lower the cost of ride hailing and car ownership, even if it means the future loss of jobs among Uber’s 1.5 million active drivers worldwide," write Greg Bensinger and Jack Nicas for the Wall Street Journal.

“The technology is going to happen because the promise is so real,” Kalanick tells them. “It’s existential. We have to have all the best minds working on this.”

“Suddenly, it seems, both Silicon Valley and Detroit are doubling down on their bets for autonomous vehicles. And in what could emerge as a self-driving-car arms race, the players are investing in, or partnering with, or buying outright the specialty companies most focused on the requisite hardware, software and artificial intelligence capabilities,” write Bill Vlasic and Mike Isaac for the New York Times.

“Although the market for big sales of fully self-driving cars is still years away, the investment and research activities are on a fast track,” they continue. “Uber plans to open a 180,000-square-foot facility in Palo Alto, Calif., to house Otto, which will operate as a stand-alone company focused specifically on upending the long-distance trucking industry. Otto engineers will also work out of offices in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.”

As for Otto, it talks about “joining the Uber team” in a blog post that is very driver-friendly. “Together with Uber, we will create the future of commercial transportation: first, self-driving trucks that provide drivers unprecedented levels of safety; and second, a platform that matches truck drivers with the right load wherever they are.” It also proposes to “help make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone, whether you’re talking people or packages.

Clearly, claims about how we will be moving people and objects around are speeding ahead of reality. Legislation regarding autonomous vehicles has only been enacted in a handful of states thus far, for one thing. But every company with some chassis in the game suddenly wants to look like it’s got an edge on the competition. 

Citing Ford’s media blitz Tuesday about its five-year plan for putting driverless cars on the road, Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff writes that the company’s thinking had obviously changed since he interviewed CEO Mark Fields last year and was told: “… we’re not interested in making a marketing claim or being the first in the race to have an autonomous vehicle.” 

“Now Ford is trying to show the future of its autonomy strategy and maybe over-promise just a bit. As to why, I think part of it has to do with Uber,” Ulanoff writes. “Millennials are not nearly as interested in cars and driving as their parents were. When they need a ride, they hail an Uber. Owning cars is for their parents.” 

Then again, with so many 18-to-34 year olds living at home, they can always borrow the keys.

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