Volvo, Uber partner on self-driving cars

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber customers in downtown Pittsburgh later this month will begin hopping into vehicles that can drive themselves to their destination.

The ride-hailing giant, which has been valued at more than $60 billion, also said Thursday it was partnering with Swedish automaker Volvo on a $300-million joint project to develop self-driving vehicles. And it said it bought a start-up that’s working on self-driving trucks.

Uber has been testing a handful of tech-laden Volvo SUVs in Pittsburgh, which is headquarters for the tech company’s nascent autonomous car research facility. Many of its staffers are former robotics experts from nearby Carnegie Mellon University, a self-driving car technology hotbed.

Volvo has so far delivered a handful of vehicles with self-driving tech to Uber, which expects to have upward of 100 such Volvos deployed in Pittsburgh by the end of the year. The cars will be staffed with safety drivers, per current transportation laws.

But the ultimate goal, often stated by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, is to replace Uber drivers with autonomous vehicles, which will drive down the cost of each ride dramatically for consumers while increasing revenue for Uber.

Uber also announced it acquired startup Otto, which is working on self-driving trucks. Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski will lead Uber’s combined self-driving initiatives.

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.

Competition is heating up in the race to develop the first commercial autonomous car, which until recently existed only in the realm of sci-fi novels and films. Uber’s news comes just days after Ford held a press conference at its R&D facility in Palo Alto to announce its intention to build fully autonomous cars by 2021, using a growing fleet of Ford Fusion Hybrids as test mules.

Google also is on a seven-year quest to develop a fully autonomous car, which eventually would be built by an automotive manufacturer partner. Earlier this year, Google announced Chrysler would be providing 100 Pacifica minivans that would be equipped with Google’s self-driving tech.

In a statement, Volvo said it would effectively be teaming up with Uber to ensure that both companies accelerate the pace of their respective self-driving products.

“Both Uber and Volvo will use the same base vehicle for the next stage of their own autonomous car strategies,” the Volvo statement reads. “This will involve Uber adding its own self-developed autonomous driving systems to the Volvo base vehicle. Volvo will use the same base vehicle for the next stage of its own autonomous car strategy, which will involve fully autonomous driving.”

In the same statement, Uber’s Kalanick noted “over one million people die in car accidents every year. These are tragedies that self-driving technology can help solve, but we can’t do this alone.”

The Uber deal with Volvo isn’t exclusive, leaving the ride-hailing service open to partner with other automakers on self-driving technology down the road.

Risks still abound

Although a future with self-driving vehicles carries a lot of promise, the technology has drawn fresh concerns after the owner of a Tesla Model S died in a crash while using the vehicle’s Autopilot feature.

The computer-controlled Autopilot manages basic driving functions of the car including braking and changing lanes, but drivers are still required to remain aware of their surroundings while it’s engaged. Federal regulators are investigating the crash.

As tech and automotive companies continue to make big strides in the field of automated driving, what remains to be seen is both how quickly consumers will warm to the idea of ceding control to a computer and how fast federal regulations can keep up with the tech developments.

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