In Pittsburgh and looking to hail a cab? Then you might be able to take part in something historic, as ride-sharing company Uber has just launched its first fleet of self-driving taxis there. Following an abrupt mid-August announcement, the cars — which are the first of their kind to be made available to the public in the US — were rolled out within weeks. As an incentive to participate in these early test runs, the self-driving taxis will be free for customers to use. That’s assuming you can nab one, as demand will likely be high.
Uber has no plans to manufacture vehicles of its own, so their new fleet consists of customized Volvo XC90s and Ford Fusions which have been outfitted with sensors and computers to give them fully autonomous capabilities. The distinctive cars can be spotted a mile away, as you can see from these pictures snapped by a local. With self-driving technology still in its infancy, the cars will be manned by a trained driver to handle any unpredictable circumstances as well as an engineer who will sit in the back taking notes.
The fleet has been financed, in part, thanks to a $300M partnership Uber struck up with Volvo. The Swedish car manufacturer was apparently chosen because of their reputation for safety, and due to their own ongoing research in autonomous driving technology (they’re currently testing their own self-driving vehicles on the roads of Gothenburg). Through this partnership, Uber hopes to have around 100 self-driving taxis on the streets of Pittsburgh by the end of 2017.
But why Pittsburgh? Well, the city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s renowned robotics department, where some of the biggest names in the emerging self-driving industry cut their teeth. This is one of the reasons Uber chose the city for its Advanced Technology Center, where they’ve poached some of the best minds from CMU to help with their research. They have no immediate plans to roll out their self-driving taxis to other cities, but this will definitely be in the back of their minds should the Pittsburgh tests prove successful.
Eventually, it’s hoped that the use of self-driving taxis will lead to significant transportation cost reductions — both for customers and Uber themselves. Once drivers can be removed from the equation completely and the cost of technology comes down, it may prove cheaper to travel everywhere by cab than it would be to own a car outright.
But there are still plenty of kinks to iron out, and the safety of self-driving cars is likely to remain a primary concern. Earlier in the year, the first fatality attributable to an autonomous vehicle was recorded as a driver tragically lost his life while his Tesla was on autopilot. Google — another major player in the industry — has also had its fair share of hiccups and fender benders. Uber has managed to maintain a clean sheet so far, but even its own execs feel that accidents are just a matter of time when it comes to experimental technology.
Q: Would you hop in one of Uber’s new self-driving taxis if you had the chance? Tell us why in the comments below.