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Uber and Volvo team up to bring an autonomous car fleet to Pittsburgh, ‘this month’

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And Uber has done it. Or is about to do it. Leaving Tesla, Google and Ford all tinkering in their garages yet, Uber is actually launching a fleet — yes, a fleet! — of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh later this month. The fleet — it sounds so cool when you say it like this — isn’t launching there for testing purposes either. No sir, Uber is going full on commercial with its autonomous Volvo taxis.

We have all been hearing of plans over the course of the past couple of years. First it was Google, then it was Tesla and then several other companies, all vying to get the first perfect self-driving car onto the roads. After cars, we soon started hearing talk of companies forming coalitions to put fleets of self driving taxis on the road as well. Amidst all this hullabaloo, Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick had been making quiet trips to Pittsburgh — trips that are finally culminating in the impending launch of an autonomous fleet.

Why Pittsburgh though, you may be wondering. After all, wouldn’t the best place to launch something like this be an out of the way town with less traffic and great roads?  Well, one reason may be the fact that the city hosts the robotics department of the Carnegie Mellon University, giving Uber instant access to some of the best talent in the field of autonomous vehicles. And indeed, a significant portion of the talent pool may well have made its way to Uber’s R&D centers, propelling the company’s drive to replace its 1 million+ human drivers with artificial intelligences.

Meanwhile, Uber is launching autonomous vehicles commercially — far before anyone thought it would be possible to do so. Pittsburgh residents can now use their mobile devices to summon self-driving cars. The vehicles will have a human in the driver’s seat at this stage, but his job is likely to remain limited to supervising the car as it makes its merry, autonomous way to the destination input by the customer.

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Rides will be booked in the usual way through the Uber app and random customers will be paired with driver-less cars. The presence of a human supervisor may actually prove to have an added advantage right here. I mean can you imagine getting into a cab that arrived with no one in the driver’s seat, wen all you did was order a regular old Uber? Meanwhile, driverless rides will be free for now and although that will likely change as soon as the experiment proves successful, Uber says that removing human drivers from the equation will drastically drive down the cost of booking a car.

Uber is partnering up with Volvo for the Pittsburgh stage of its autonomous cabs. The car company will be providing Uber with around 100 specially modified, Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles by the year end. Uber has already taken delivery of a few of the highly advanced, camera, laser, radar and whatnot equipped vehicles and will begun deploying them as part of its Uber fleet in the city by the later part of this month. Uber and Volvo have embarked upon a bunch of deeper, strategic partnerships as well — including a recently announced, $300 million program to develop fully autonomous vehicles by 2021.

Speaking about the deal, Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo CEO said,

Volvo is one of the most progressive and contemporary car makers in the world. It is a world leader in the development of active safety and autonomous drive technology and possesses an unrivaled safety credibility. We are very proud to be the partner of choice for Uber, one of the world’s leading technology companies. This alliance places Volvo at the heart of the current technological revolution in the automotive industry.

And “at the head” may just turn out to be the right choice of words as well. While Tesla, Google and others are still stuck in the testing phase, Uber has already begun moving ahead with commercialization. While we are not saying that hastily moving ahead in a bid to leave others behind is a good thing, Uber is certain to have performed the appropriate tests before actually readying to launch its fleet on the roads. Apart from the benefits reaped by the company as a cab aggregation business, humanity as a whole also stands to gain a whole bunch of advantages, should the project — anyone’s, Google, Tesla or Ford’s — turn out to become successful.

Speaking on the topic, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, said

Over one million people die in car accidents every year. These are tragedies that self-driving technology can help solve, but we can’t do this alone. That’s why our partnership with a great manufacturer like Volvo is so important. Volvo is a leader in vehicle development and best-in-class when it comes to safety. By combining the capabilities of Uber and Volvo we will get to the future faster, together.

Meanwhile, Uber has continued beefing up its capabilities in the autonomous sphere. The company even funded robotics research at Carnegie Mellon University for a short duration. However, the funding became unnecessary after a significant number of the researchers started working at the company’s Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh. Stealing scientists out of their laboratories is not the only way Uber has of going after acquiring talent though. The company is also making well-placed, strategic acquisitions that are netting it extremely talented engineers in their droves.

Uber is apparently shelling out a staggering $680 million to buy Otto. Otto is a self-driving truck startup started out by ex-Googlers and a bunch of other people with some serious talents lying in the autonomous vehicle region. The company, before its acquisition, was working upon systems that could take over the driving of trucks on highways, allowing the driver to indulge in better pursuits such as say, taking a nap.

Not only will the acquisition of the around 100-member company provide Uber with a bunch of highly talented professionals and engineers, a blog post by may be taken to mean that Uber’s ambitions may extend to beyond just freighting humans. As per the Otto post,

By joining forces with Uber we can fast forward to the future. Together, Otto and Uber can build the backbone of the rapidly-approaching self-driving freight system. We can help make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone, whether you’re talking people or packages.

Self-driving freight system? People or Packages? Well, to me that smacks of some deep, deep ambitions on Travis Kalanick’s part. Otto’s current employees have collectively — and apparently. No official word on the terms of the deal yet — also been promised 20 percent of any profits Uber earns from building an autonomous trucking business. So, that can probably be taken to safely assume that Uber is looking to build a business along the lines of the whole autonomous thing as well.

Meanwhile, a lot is going to depend upon how the cab aggregator’s first, real autonomous gig turns out in Pittsburgh. Testing conditions are quite well enough, however, there is nothing quite to the match of real world conditions. Let’s see how well the company’s autonomous fleet performs once out there on the streets of Pittsburgh, later this month.

A bibliophile and a business enthusiast.

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