Self-driving cars hit the road

The race to develop self-driving cars reached a major milestone with Uber’s announcement that it will test autonomous vehicles in real-time for ride-hailing service in Pittsburgh. But don’t expect to see empty drivers’ seats any time soon.

Each of the Volvo SUV models Uber is using will have a driver and an engineer on board. Rides will be free initially. It will be the first-time regular people will be to hail a ride in one of cars, which will operate autonomously with the safety driver on hand to take control if necessary. The engineer will make notes about performance and collect rider data. Volvo is expected to deliver a total of 100 sport-utility vehicles for the test by the end of the year. The automobiles are equipped with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar and GPS to operate the vehicles, which also still have steering wheels and brake pedals.

City provides diverse driving conditions

Pittsburgh is home to Uber’s advanced technology center, and the company has a partnership with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, which for decades has built automation technology. Pittsburgh also offers a range of weather conditions and a complex set of traffic patterns in a road network that includes nearly 450 bridges.

Pittsburgh’s mayor welcomes the effort

“The three areas where the world is moving is shared, electric, and autonomous,” Bill Peduto said. “We’ll be at the forefront of building this new economy.” Uber and Volvo agreed earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be road-ready by 2021. Uber’s deal with Volvo is not exclusive and the ride-sharing company expects to work with other automakers. In another signal that it is serious about self-driving autos, Uber recently acquired Otto, a tech start-up founded by former Google employees that wants to bring autonomous trucking to market. The purchase brings 70 additional developers into Uber’s fold.

Automakers, tech companies rush to market

Uber is venturing into a crowded experimental marketplace that includes Google, Apple, Ford, Tesla, and General Motors, which is partnering with rival ride-service Lyft.

Google is seen as the leader in the field and the company has been testing self-driving models for years. The tech giant earlier this year applied for a patent on police vehicle detection system for its driverless cars. Google’s efforts hit a snag earlier this year with the defection of the Otto team and the departure of Chris Urmson, head of its self-driving car project. In August, Google replaced Urmson with Shaun Stewart, an Airbnb executive who will focus transforming the experimental technology into a viable business.

Ford, GM, BMW among competitors

Google faces plenty of competition. Ford is developing an autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals that the automaker said would be available in 2021. BMW has also confirmed plans to market an electric, self-driving car by the same year.

General Motors, meanwhile, purchased Cruise Automation for $600 million. GM also invested $500 million in Lyft. The two companies are partnering to create self-driving cars and car rental hubs for Lyft drivers.

GM expects to have driverless Chevy Volt prototypes cruising around its Michigan headquarters in this year but has not said when they might be available to the public.

Apple recently shifted its efforts from building hardware of a car to developing software that can operate a driverless automobile. Apple hopes to take a product to market in 2010.
Tesla announced 100 million miles travelled on its AutoPilot earlier this year, well above about three million miles completed by Google’s fleet.

Cities see potential uses

Cities are also getting into the act.

Columbus, Ohio plans a fleet of electric, self-driving shuttles to carry workers and shoppers around its busy business district. Austin wants to develop driverless cars to carry people between transit hubs and the airport. San Francisco is studying whether to use driverless vehicles to make deliveries and transport municipal service workers.

While experts say fully-developed driverless cars could eventually be safer than human-driven vehicles, Tesla drew headlines in May when a self-driving car set on auto-pilot crashed into a truck in Florida, killing the car driver. The company said the car failed to distinguish an 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the road in bright sunlight.

Human drivers still required

People should not expect to ride around in cars with no human drivers any time soon, experts said.

“The reality is these cars will be closely supervised systems. It doesn’t matter if they are 80 percent self-driving or 99 percent self-driving. You still need a human involved for the bit that is not,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law and engineering at the University of South Carolina.

More likely than widespread consumer adoption right away, Smith said, companies will identify specific areas such as college campuses or stretches of freeway or a downtown area as good initial testing areas for automated vehicles.

Uber’s test with real riders in Pittsburgh is a significant development, he said. “It’s an important first step because the public will be instrumental in shaping demand for these systems.”

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