While Google has sought wide publicity for its self-driving car efforts, Uber has been a much quieter force in the movement. Uber confirmed news of the self-driving car project in February of this year but has kept its project under wraps until last week. An Uber-branded Ford sedan test vehicle was spotted for the first time in Pittsburgh. The $40 billion company aims to develop its own fleet of self-driving taxis that will eventually replace its human drivers, the most expensive part of their car service.
To develop its self-driving taxi, Uber spokeswoman Trina Smith explained in an email to the Pittsburgh Business Times that the test car is “part of our early research efforts regarding mapping, safety and autonomy systems” but Uber clarified that it is not actually a self-driving car.
Uber is collaborating with researchers at the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) of Carnegie Mellon University. “We are excited to join the community of Pittsburgh and partner with the experts at CMU, whose breadth and depth of technical expertise, particularly in robotics, are unmatched,” says Jeff Holden, chief product officer of Uber.
Uber’s leasing of an enormous warehouse close to CMU demonstrates its commitment to the project in Pittsburgh. It is worth noting however that Uber has reportedly hired up to fifty employees directly from NREC, rather than simply working with the Center. ‘They took all the guys that were working on vehicle autonomy—basically whole groups, whole teams of developers, commercialization specialists, all the guys that find grants and who were bringing the intellectual property,’ reports an individual close to NREC and Uber.
An all-autonomous Uber fleet could be a game-changing boon for the consumer. “By removing the driver from the equation (the largest cost in a taxi ride), the average cost per mile to the consumer could be 44 cents for a private ride in a standard sedan and 8 cents for a shared ride in a two-seater,” writes Barclays analyst Brian Johnson. In addition to saving money and lives, the self-driving car could completely disrupt the consumer’s relationship to the automobile, making car ownership obsolete through cheap, easy personal transportation at a swipe of a smartphone.
However, there is a dark side to the driver-free future. Wide adoption of autonomous vehicles could lead to the elimination of millions of jobs, not only for taxi drivers, but truckers, mechanics, employees at businesses along trucking routes, and much more. “Look, this is the way the world is going,” said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick at last year’s Code Conference. “If Uber doesn’t go there, it’s not going to exist either way. The world isn’t always great.”