from the this-should-be-interesting dept
Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.Separately, the company announced that it has bought a self-driving startup, Otto, and put its co-founder, Antohony Levandowski, in charge of Uber's self-driving efforts.
Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers. Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021.
We've already noted that Tesla has Uber-like plans as well, but this could certainly get interesting. Lots of people (including us!) have speculated on what the world will look like as autonomous vehicles become more prominent, but it's somewhat amazing how quickly this is happening.
While it's not a huge surprise that Uber may be leading the way, it does still raise some interesting questions. Obviously, lots of people say that Uber wants to do this so that it won't have to pay drivers any more (though in these tests a human is still in the driver's seat and, one assumes, getting paid). But part of the genius (or problem, depending on your point of view...) of Uber was that it was just a platform for drivers who brought their own cars. That is, Uber didn't have to invest the capital in buying up cars. It just provided the platform, drivers brought their own cars, and Uber got a cut. If it's moving to a world of driverless cars, then Uber is no longer the platform for drivers, it's everything. It needs to make the investment and own the cars. That's actually a pretty big shift.
That's not to say that it won't work -- and there's an argument that Uber's real power these days is in its operations software figuring out which cars should go where -- but it is an interesting shift in the business. And given that, it's also interesting to see how Tesla is entering the market from the other direction -- a direction that is more like Uber's original concept, where individuals own their own cars, but then lease them back to Tesla to act as for-hire cars for others. I guess it's possible that Uber could do the same thing too, where any car owner could provide their vehicle back to Uber to earn money, but without having to drive it -- just making it a productive resource.
Who knows how this will turn out -- and I'm sure some people will inevitably freak out when there's a self-driving car accident -- but the future is getting really interesting really fast.