Uber’s Self-Driving Cars: Boon or Boondoggle?

Uber’s Self-Driving Cars: Boon or Boondoggle?

By Heidi Reidel

In September of 2016, Uber unleashed a fleet of self-driving Ford Fusions on the streets of Pittsburgh. Only a few months later, they followed suit in San Francisco with upgraded, specially made Volvo XC90s. Earlier in the year, Uber took over Otto, a company in the business of self-driving trucks and launched a new carpooling service, uberPOOL. Though Uber has forged ahead and has exciting achievements, they have been faced with their fair share of failures in hand with their triumphs.

Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Roll Into Pittsburgh

There were a few reasons Uber chose Pittsburgh as the launching point for its autonomous ride-hailing vehicles. First, the city doesn’t demand the same regulations that many cities do regarding autonomous vehicles. Mayor William Peduto has said that innovative companies that bring jobs and services are welcomed. Pittsburgh is also home to Carnegie Mellon University, whose robotics department has been a pioneer of autonomous vehicle research.

Finally, Pittsburgh is considered an example of the ultimate challenge for self-driving cars. Between drastic weather changes, potholes, bridges, construction, and a difficult grid layout, Pittsburgh is considered the double black diamond of driving. Director of Uber ATC, Raffi Krikorkian, believes if they can work out the kinks there, they’ll master the streets anywhere.

Setbacks in San Francisco

Rather than creating their own cars, Uber is working closely with automakers to integrate their technology with the vehicle. Uber used its experience with the Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh to refine the Volvo XC90s. Both vehicles are equipped with traditional optical cameras, radar, LiDAR, and ultrasonic detectors, but the newer vehicles actually use fewer sensors according to Uber ATG Head of Product, Matt Sweeney.

Uber’s self-driving cars only debuted in San Francisco for about a week when California officials shut them down and the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the registrations of the autonomous vehicles. The California DMV asserts that Uber violated their permitting process for testing autonomous vehicles, but Uber insists their vehicles are not autonomous under the letter of California law, given that their cars still receive active monitoring from natural persons. The self-driving cars are not left to their own devices; a driver sits in the driver’s seat, taking control during more difficult obstacles. Uber remains undeterred and has already moved vehicles to Arizona after the setback in California. Arizona Governor, Doug Ducey, welcomed them with open arms.

Otto and Uber Freight

Uber has not put all of their eggs in one basket. They’ve partnered with Otto, a self-driving truck company co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, one of the former founders of Google’s self-driving car project. This partnership birthed the future in self-driving trucks, and a successful passage of over 120 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs was made. A driver monitored the transport of the 45,000 cans of Budweiser beer from the truck’s sleeper berth for the two-hour journey, but the goal is to eliminate the driver altogether. Some believe the future of the autonomous vehicle industry lies with trucks rather than with cars. The technology is better suited for long highway stretches as opposed to the starting and stopping of city traffic, and eliminating truck drivers would be cost effective for the trucking industry.

The Competitors

Tesla’s autopilot vehicles can now be equipped with full self-driving capabilities, although they can only be used in accordance with local regulatory restrictions. The vehicles have the ability to change lanes, take exits, park, and even pick owners up at the curb. Google has their own self-driving car project, a spin-off company called Waymo. Waymo’s advanced technology suggests it’s ready for commercialization, yet they’re running into quite a few roadblocks of their own. They’ve lost both project co-founder, Anthony Levandowski, and project leader, Chris Urmson. Google is also struggling with how to make money off of the project. They are not a ride-hailing service like Uber or an auto manufacturer like Tesla, so establishing similar businesses would take a considerable investment.

Though the self-driving industry is facing a mountain of adversity, Uber appears to be keeping its head above water. Whether their autonomous ride-hailing vehicles take off or Uber Freight gains momentum, Uber will need to establish some sort of successful commercialization, lest the self-driving technology become a boondoggle.

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