Pittsburgh residents can now book a ride in a car that can – almost – drive itself
Uber has launched a trial of self-driving car services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the most significant exposure to date of self-driving vehicles to the general public and a new step in a field that is currently seeing intense competition by technology giants and auto-makers alike.
The trial follows a more limited driverless taxi service launched in Singapore last month and initially makes only four vehicles available for hire, with a backup driver and an engineer also in place to keep things running smoothly.
The vehicles are, however, readily available via Uber’s taxi-hailing service and can operate across the city, although their reportedly unhurried driving speed promises to make them of interest mainly as a curiosity.
To date most self-driving car prototypes have been tested well away from contact with the public, and most agree fully autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be on the roads any time soon.
Uber said it currently has a fleet of more than a dozen self-driving cars and plans to have several score on Pittsburgh’s roads by the end of this year.
The company is currently using Ford Fusion cars outfitted with a bulky array of sensors attached to the roof, and said it also plans to use Volvo SUVs.
Initially a driver accompanies the vehicle to perform left turns through traffic, allow pedestrians to cross the street and manoeuvre through construction areas, with an engineer also present to make speed adjustments.
However, Initial reports said the cars were able to automatically obey red and green traffic signals, travel over bridges, overtake vehicles and slow for an opening driver-side door on a busy street.
Uber said Pittsburgh presents ideal testing conditions, since it is an old city with steep and narrow roads, hundreds of bridges and extreme weather conditions.
The state’s laws don’t prohibit autonomous vehicles, yet the city has welcomed Uber’s tests.
Uber, which has attracted attention for its aggressive tactics and private investments of more than $15 billion (£11 billion), announced its focus on self-driving cars more than two years ago, after Google had already been testing them for several years.
The firm established an Advanced Technologies Centre in Pittsburgh 18 months ago, poaching about one-quarter of Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon’s robotics academics to staff it.
Unlike Google, which is also a major investor in Uber, the taxi-hailing firm has a large existing user base of passenger customers around the world, giving it an immediate channel for delivering self-driving car services.
The company is also amongst those who would stand to directly benefit from self-driving technology, which could in theory allow it to employ fewer drivers.
Other heavy investors in autonomous vehicles include Google parent Alphabet, China’s Baidu and electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors, as well as most major automobile manufacturers.
US startup nuTonomy late last month launched a self-driving taxi service pilot operating in a small area in the outskirts of Singapore.
The invitation-only service uses small Renault and Mitsubishi electric vehicles which, as in Uber’s trials, feature human drivers who can take over when needed.
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