Uber’s autonomous ride-share fleet goes live in Pittsburgh

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Yesterday (September 14) Uber finally launched its much-anticipated fleet of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles in the city of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, USA, which can now be hailed by the company’s customers in the city.

Although it is not the world’s first self-driving taxi trial in operation – Uber having been beaten to that milestone by just two weeks by the nuTonomy pilot in Singapore (read our report here) – the Pittsburgh pilot is expected to be considerably larger.

Uber sees this phase of public testing as being critical to the success of autonomous driving technology, which it suggests may ultimately help to offer a viable alternative to individual car ownership in cities. The company believes that self-driving ride-share fleets have the potential of: reducing the number of traffic accidents; freeing up the 20% of space in cities currently used to park the world’s billion plus cars; and cutting congestion, which wastes trillions of hours every year.

A year and a half ago, Uber set up its Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh, with the aim of rolling out a fleet of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles in the city. The company is now integreating the vehicles into their normal fleet, and customers in the city will have no idea whether the ride they hail will turn out to be one of the new cars. 

Uber says that as it is still very early in the program, the autonomous cars will have a safety driver in the front seat, because they require human intervention in many conditions, including bad weather. Even when these technology issues get fixed, the company believes ridesharing will be a mix, with services provided by both drivers and Self-Driving Ubers. This is because of the limits of self-driving software and the ever-increasing demand for better transportation, which people-powered transport is uniquely able to solve.

Uber’s initial press statement about the project inferred that its new partner Volvo would be providing the vehicles for the Pittsburgh trials. However, the fleet unveiled yesterday (September 14) are all Ford Fusion sedans, equipped with bespoke hardware, including multiple lidar and camera sensor systems.

A joint statement issued by Uber co-founder, Travis Kalanick, and the company’s VP for self-driving cars, Anthony Levandowski, said, “We couldn’t be more excited about what’s next. But to make it happen, we need to lead by fusing our great ridesharing network with great self-driving software and hardware. Our ATC efforts, combined with our recent Otto acquisition, mean we have one of the strongest self-driving engineering groups in the world, as well as the experience that comes from running a ridesharing and delivery network in hundreds of cities. And our existing partnerships with drivers, as well as new ones with manufacturers like Volvo, will ensure a world-class customer experience for generations to come.”

For a video report on the launch click here

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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