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Uber launches driverless taxis, with human supervisor meantime, in Pittsburgh this month

The modified Volvo: on the road to going driverless

Driverless taxis operated by Uber are expected to appear in Pittsburgh within weeks, according to a report by Bloomberg.

Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones.

Intending passengers will request cars the normal way, via Uber’s app, and will be paired with a driverless car at random. But relax: Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being.

Trips will be free at the moment, rather than the standard local rate of $1.30 per mile. In the long run, Uber says, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car.

The fleet consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers.

Bloomberg says Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year.

The development, far faster-than expected, follows a trip to the city near the end of 2014 by Uber co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick .

His mission was to hire dozens of the world’s experts in autonomous vehicles.

The city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has produced “many of the biggest names in the newly hot field,” said Bloomberg.

Sebastian Thrun, the creator of Google’s self-driving car project, spent seven years researching autonomous robots at Carnegie Mellon. The project’s former director, Chris Urmson, was a CMU grad student.

“Travis had an idea that he wanted to do self-driving,” says John Bares, who had run CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years before founding Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes components for self-driving industrial robots used in mining, farming, and the military.

“I turned him down three times. But the case was pretty compelling.”

Bares joined Uber in January  2015 and by early 2016 had recruited hundreds of engineers, robotics experts, and even car mechanics to join the venture.

The goal was mind-blowing: to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers—as quickly as possible.

Until now most analysts, have said true self-driving cars are years or decades away.

But Kalanick begs to differ. “We are going commercial,” he says in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “This can’t just be about science.”

Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, a 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.

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.

The Volvo deal isn’t exclusive; Uber plans to partner with other car makers as it races to recruit more engineers.

In July Uber agreed to buy Otto, a 91-employee driverless truck startup that was founded earlier this year and includes engineers from a number of high-profile tech companies attempting to bring driverless cars to market, including Google, Apple, and Tesla. Otto has developed a kit that allows big-rig trucks to steer themselves on highways, “in theory freeing up the driver to nap in the back of the cabin”, says Bloomberg.

The system is being tested on highways around San Francisco. Aspects of the technology will be incorporated into Uber’s robot livery cabs and will be used to start an Uber-like service for long-haul trucking in the U.S., building on the intracity delivery services, like Uber Eats, that the company already offers.

Otto’s founders were key members of Google’s operation who decamped in January, because, according to Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, “We were really excited about building something that could be launched early.”

Levandowski, one of the original engineers on the self-driving team at Google, started Otto with Lior Ron, who served as the head of product for Google Maps for five years.

“The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car],” says Kalanick. “Because if there is not, we’re not going to have any business.” Developing an autonomous vehicle, he adds, “is basically existential for us.” Unlike Google and Tesla, Uber has no intention of mass-producing its own cars, Kalanick says. Instead, the company will strike deals with auto manufacturers, starting with Volvo Cars, and will develop kits for other models.

Kalanick believes that Uber can use the data collected from its app, where human drivers and riders are logging roughly 100 million miles per day, to quickly improve its self-driving mapping and navigation systems.

As for the fact that the driverless Uber will in fact have a human supervisor at the wheel.“Nobody has set up software that can reliably drive a car safely without a human,” Kalanick says. “We are focusing on that.”

Although Kalanick and other self-driving car advocates say the vehicles will ultimately save lives, they face harsh scrutiny for now, says Bloomberg. In July a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot service died after colliding with a tractor-trailer, apparently because both the driver and the car’s computers didn’t see it. The crash is currently being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Google has seen a handful of accidents, but they’ve been less severe, in part because it limits its cars to 25 miles per hour. Uber’s cars haven’t had any crashes since they began road-testing in Pittsburgh in May, but at some point something will go wrong, according to Raffi Krikorian, the company’s engineering director. “We’re interacting with reality every day,” he says. “It’s coming.”

For now, Uber’s test cars travel with safety driver. These professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle.

A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening.

“The goal is to wean us off of having drivers in the car, so we don’t want the public talking to our safety drivers,” Krikorian says.

On a recent weekday test drive, the safety drivers were still an essential part of the experience, as Uber’s autonomous car briefly turned un-autonomous, while crossing the Allegheny River. A chime sounded, a signal to the driver to take the wheel. A second ding a few seconds later indicated that the car was back under computer control. “Bridges are really hard,” Krikorian says. “And there are like 500 bridges in Pittsburgh.”

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