Uber’s self-driving taxis take Pittsburgh

“The robot cars aren’t coming. The robot
cars are here,” said Russ Mitchell and
Tracey Lien in the Los Angeles Times.
Uber announced last week that its customers
in Pittsburgh would soon be able to
hail a ride from one of the company’s experimental
self-driving cars. An Uber engineer
will be in the front seat, ready to take
the wheel “in case things go wrong,” but
otherwise the fleet of Fords and Volvos
will be fully capable of driving themselves.
“Although other companies, including
Google, are testing self-driving cars on
public roads, none offers rides to regular
people,” said Justin Pritchard and Tom Krisher in the Associated
Press. Participation in Uber’s test program will be optional for
Pittsburgh residents when it rolls out in the next few weeks, but
the company says that “as an enticement” it will offer the autonomous
rides free of charge to woo hesitant passengers.
“Both Silicon Valley and Detroit are doubling down on their
bets for autonomous vehicles,” said Bill Vlasic and Mike Isaac
in The New York Times. Ford also announced last week that
it plans to put self-driving taxis onto American roads by 2021.
“But while Ford is looking five years out,” Uber is stepping
on the gas. The ride-hailing company also just announced it is
buying Otto, a startup focused on self-driving semitruck technology,
and is embarking on a $300 million partnership to develop
self-driving cars with Volvo. If Uber’s
autonomous fleet can conquer Pittsburgh,
where the company’s self-driving
research lab is based, there’s no doubt it
can win the self-driving-car arms race,
said Avery Hartmans in BusinessInsider
.com. The city’s innumerable bridges,
tunnels, and hills—not to mention its
morass of Google Maps–confounding
one-way streets and narrow roads—make
it the ideal city for working out the kinks
in self-driving technology. “Plus, there’s
the weather. Snow, ice, wind, rain—
Pittsburgh has it all.”
Uber’s real endgame is to eliminate those “pesky resource hogs”
otherwise known as humans, said Jason Koebler in Vice.com.
The backup driver-engineers in Uber’s self-driving fleet won’t
even be permitted to speak to their passengers. The goal, says
Uber’s engineering lead Raffi Krikorian, “is to wean us off of
having drivers in the car.” Most auto experts agree that a future
of driverless cars will ultimately be safer, more efficient,
and better for the environment. And Uber predicts that hailing
a robotaxi will one day be cheaper than owning a vehicle. But
the transition to this brave new world will be brutal for Uber’s
1 mil lion drivers around the world. “There is no short-term job
in an automated car for the recently laid-off guy who drives
Uber to make ends meet.”

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