Uber is set to offer its first self-driving rides later this month in Pittsburgh, where it began testing the technology in public earlier this year. The company plans to match customers with the autonomous vehicles randomly and rides will be free as part of the initial pilot program, Bloomberg reports. The news comes in tandem with another announcement that Uber and Volvo will team up to build fully autonomous cars, which Uber will buy.
The company has been developing self-driving technology for years, but Uber CEO Travis Kalanick can’t wait any longer to start testing it out on actual customers. “We are going commercial,” he told Bloomberg. “This can’t just be about science.” Uber’s first self-driving cars are modified versions of the Volvo XC90 SUV that come jam-packed with extra cameras, radar, laser sensors and GPS. Volvo’s only finished a few of the new vehicles so far, but it’s set to deliver 100 models by the end of the year.
The company’s still legally required to put a human supervisor in the driver’s seat, and an audio warning will go off whenever they need to take the wheel. A second employee will also sit up front to take notes. Meanwhile, the backseat will include a special tablet to explain the new technology to each passenger. Uber quietly snatched Otto for its self-driving tech prowess and high-profile personnel, and the deal should close as early as this month. Once that happens, former Googler Anthony Levandowski is expected to lead Uber’s self-driving car efforts.
Uber may not be deploying fully autonomous vehicles anytime soon, but launching self-driving cars with engineers behind the wheel is an impressive effort for the time being. That’s especially noteworthy considering that Uber is moving at a faster pace than Google, which is widely regarded as the leader in self-driving car efforts.
Volvo, meanwhile, has delivered a “handful” of autonomous test vehicles already, with another 100 set to arrive by the end of the year. The carmaker also signed a $300 million deal with Uber to deliver a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021. Ford promised fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 as well, so the race is heating up. Until then, riding a modified Volvo XC90 as part of Uber’s self-driving car fleet will have to do. This is it for now, stay tuned for further updates.