David Papp Blog

Now You Can Hail a Self-Driving Uber

Beginning last September, Uber introduced self-driving vehicles to the City of Steel. The company’s Advanced Technology Center in Pittsburgh has been working to make the city into one of America’s smartest … while creating safer transportation through automation.

Uber’s car of choice is the Ford Fusion. These cars are already “smart,” even without the self-driving modifications. Consumer models include voice-activated tech and touchscreens. Cell phone apps allow owners to check fuel levels and lock or start cars remotely.

If you visit Pittsburgh, you can try it out for yourself through their pilot program

Hailing a self-driving Uber is much like requesting any other Uber

Just use the regular Uber app on your smartphone to order your ride. Your route, as always, will be predetermined and shown on your phone. The car picking you up will most likely contain a driver.

However, there are a few differences. You’ll have to specifically request an UberX and agree to new terms. Once you get started, you won’t be able to make changes to your route. Your driver will be completing reports to collect data for the engineering team. In addition, the car has new hardware and technology you’ll notice right away.

A spinning cylinder on top is part of a system that includes RADAR, LIDAR, and a suite of other sensors to detect objects and lights. RADAR uses radio waves. LIDAR, on the other hand, stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It’s currently used in agriculture, forest management, and topography. It times reflections of repeated infrared laser pulses to determine changes in distance.

The modified Fusion automatically controls the wheel – no hands are needed for most of each trip. For the bulk of the travel a driver could, in theory, hold a giant mug of coffee in one hand, a meatball parmesan sandwich in the other, and still get you safely to your destination. Except that they won’t … because they must be ready to launch into full manual control at a moment’s notice.

The technology is still in development

With important refinements to self-driving technology still in process, not every city is ready to embrace driverless cars. In San Francisco, Uber put a fleet of self-driving Volvo XC90s on the roads without special permission. A huge backlash came when one was caught on video running a light. California legislators now threaten to create a heavy $25,000 per vehicle per day fine on any unapproved self-driving vehicles.

After initially making plans to move to Arizona, however, the company has decided to stay. The cars are back on the roads with drivers. They are continuing research and development for Uber’s new mapping system.

Uber’s goal is to increase safety

Uber has made self-driving part of its mission to improve society. With automated vehicles potentially safer in general than those driven by human operators, the new technology is expected to:

  • Reduce traffic accidents, responsible for over 1 million deaths each year
  • Create new city space by using less real estate for parking
  • Cut down on highway congestion with an increase in ride sharing … which could recoup hours of wasted commute and travel time every year.

Toyota AI model’s research lab recently told Quartz that more research is needed. We still have to develop reliability in response to bad weather and unexpected moves by other drivers, for example.

In the meantime, drivers will have to eat their sandwiches at home.