Innovation

Uber's driverless rides in Pittsburgh: What's happening and what it means

In the last week of August, Uber will unveil a driverless fleet in Pittsburgh, lessening reliance on its drivers. Here's what the move means.

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Image: Dave DiCello

If you request an Uber in Pittsburgh this week, there's a chance your car may be driving itself.

Well, not completely by itself. There will still be two operators in the vehicle: A trained Uber engineer as well as a person to take notes.

But, despite the presence of these humans, it's official: Self-driving cars are now accessible to the public. In the middle of August, Uber announced it would unveil self-driving rides in Pittsburgh. And then, beating the ride-sharing giant by mere days, Cambridge startup nuTuonomy began shuttling passengers in driverless taxis in Singapore.

SEE: Uber's self-driving car to hit the streets of Pittsburgh (ZDNet)

Uber has long had a presence in Pittsburgh. In early 2015, they began hiring mechanical and electrical technicians, testers, safety drivers, algorithm developers, and sensor experts, to work on driverless technology at their Advanced Technologies Center, and currently have around 400 employees, many of them former Carnegie Mellon researchers.

And, according to John Dolan, the principal systems scientist in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, "most Pittsburghers have seen one of the Uber test cars with various sensors on it driving around town," so it's no huge secret that the company has had this in the plans for a while.

Yet when Uber made its announcements last week about its plan to have self-driving Ford Fusions and Volvo XC90s available in the city by the end of August (in addition to its $300M partnership with Volvo) it was news to many—even the drivers themselves. So let's break down the facts, and the implications.

What's happening

Beginning at the end of August, Uber will have these self-driving Volvos and Fords on the road, available for rides. According to Wired, these rides will also be free. They will be operated by two people, a designated, trained "operator" as well as an engineer in the backseat taking notes. The partnership means Uber will have 100 self-driving Volvos on the road by the end of 2017. It will also have Ford Fusions, but Ford told TechRepublic that they weren't involved in that decision.

As of Tuesday, Uber has not confirmed that driverless cars are available yet, and the Uber Pittsburgh account on Twitter has no mention of the move.

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Volvo XC90

Image: Volvo

Why Volvo?

Uber has said it chose Volvo because of its reputation for safety. But the Swedish automaker is also on the cutting edge when it comes to autonomous technology. Their "Drive Me" project in Europe is currently testing autonomous vehicles on the roads of Gothenburg, Sweden.

SEE: Autonomous driving levels 0 to 5: Understanding the differences (TechRepublic)

Volvo told TechRepublic that this will allow them to "jointly finance the development of next generation autonomous driving technology that we would otherwise have had to finance on our own." The company also said it would help "position ourselves to benefit from the disruption to the relatively traditional car industry and lead the way in developing next generation automotive technology together with a world-leading tech company." It will also, of course, mean the sales of cars to Uber, which will generate revenue.

What it means for drivers

It's clear that this move will have an impact on Uber drivers in Pittsburgh—and, presumably, eventually on other drivers throughout the country.

"Uber is definitely trying to take drivers out of the equation," said Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California.

Uber is definitely trying to take drivers out of the equation Jeffrey Miller

While Uber would not comment for TechRepublic on the number of contract drivers it uses in Pittsburgh, it has 1.5M drivers globally, and 600,000 in the US.

"If drivers owned even a piece of the platform, it wouldn't be so bad," said media critic Douglas Rushkoff. "Right now, they're simply doing the research and development for a robotic car company. That's why Uber doesn't need to care whether they're paying the drivers a livable wage. They just need to keep their drivers alive long enough to replace them."

SEE: Tesla's Autopilot: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)

And the fact is, if self-driving rides are offered for free, it will draw riders away from requesting rides from drivers they would have to pay.

Uber drivers in Pittsburgh say they have been completely out of the loop with the news.

"With the self driving car situation, we didn't get any information from Uber about that at all," said Ryan, who preferred not to use his last name. "They just pull stuff like that all the time. It's really obnoxious."

Ryan said Uber only communicates with its drivers when it has good news. "Obviously, the self driving car thing is freaking people out a little bit," he said. "If it's a negative thing, they let you find out for yourself."

And although he knew this was coming, he didn't realize how soon it would be. He found out the news, like many other Uber drivers, through the media. "I wasn't prepared for it," he said.

What it means for Uber

The bottom line? This move is an upfront investment with the hopes of big cost savings.

It's important to note that these "driverless" cars are not actually saving money yet. "Eventually, when the driver and engineer are taken out of the car, and the price of technology drops, it will become a cost-saving measure," said Miller. "These companies have to be well-funded and very forward-looking to make the investment in driverless technologies right now because they are actually going to cost more money in the near-term."

What this means for the future of driverless cars

Public acceptance of driverless technology is a critical step towards its widespread adoption. Bryant Walker Smith, a leading expert in the legal aspects of driverless vehicles, said that since there will be an "operator" behind the wheel, the ride experience for passengers will not be dramatically different. Yet, "it's a good thing that the general public can start to experience these vehicles from the inside."

And although Uber is the first to announce driverless cars for the public in the US, we should expect that others aren't far behind. Tesla's Masterplan 2.0 includes a self-driving fleet of shared cars. And Lyft, Uber's direct competitor in the US, announced a partnership with GM back in January, and have been testing driverless technology with the auto giant for months—signaling that they, too, may be poised for a similar move.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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