Uber had a public unveiling of its self-driving car pilot project Tuesday, where members of the media were able to ride along.
A Reuters reporter joined a one hour ride in Pittsburgh with an Uber driver and engineer in the front seats. It was the first day of a test project allowing the general public to ride along in self-driving cars.
All went smoothly with the Uber driver and engineer making small adjustments every few miles. On its own, the test vehicle was able to stop at red lights, accelerate at green, cross a bridge, bypass a mail truck, and slow down to avoid a driver opening a car door on a busy street.
The Uber driver took control to allow pedestrians to cross the street, maneuver through a construction zone, and make a left turn. An Uber engineer sat in the passenger seat, occasionally adjusting the speed of the car as it slowly drove along.
For now, the test fleet consists of riding in Ford Fusions with 3D cameras, GPS, and Lidar that uses lasers to assess the shape and distance of objects. Uber is also outfitting Volvo all-electric C30 SUVs that will be added to the fleet.
Uber opened its Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh last year. The ridesharing giant had moved away from working directly with an experienced self-driving car research team at Carnegie Mellon University; hiring away about 40 faculty and researchers caused a bit of an upset with the university.
Carnegie Mellon researchers are known for their expertise in self-driving technologies. Researchers built a minivan in 1995 that drove itself across the country and remained in autonomous mode about 98 percent of the time. The challenge has been developing an autonomous vehicle system that can deal with all the realities of driving, including traffic congestion, pedestrians, potholes, and construction work on roads.
“Since the mid-’90s pretty much this entire field has been focused on doing that last step,” said Aaron Steinfeld, associate research professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon.
Last month, Uber acquired Otto, a San Francisco-based self-driving truck system for an estimated $680 million. That startup had been founded earlier this year by former Google employees who had worked on that company’s self-driving car project. Otto has been developing a $30,000 aftermarket autonomous-driving kit that can be installed on existing long-haul trucks. The company has been testing four heavy-duty trucks that can steer themselves on Bay Area highways.
As for self-driving cars, Uber is one of many. Google, Baidu, Tesla, and General Motors have been hard at work testing out the new technology; and Ford has talked about entering the self-driving ridesharing space by 2021. Uber stands out by offering riders what is likely to be their first experience in a self-driving car.
“If Uber scores a home run with this, it’s going to be wonderful for the planet,” said Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. “The reason is we will see a much safer world and much more efficient world where we have to use less energy to move people around.”
Moore expects it take at least another 10 years before there will be a significant number autonomous vehicles on roads. Industry executives are not in agreement on the timing, with some saying fully automated cars will be here in five years, and others say that it will take decades before it becomes a reality.