Self-driving cars have been in the news regularly since Google and others announced their development in 2012, but last week their development took a huge step for the first time in the U.S.
Uber recently announced its plan to put self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs), on the road with the rest of the Uber fleet. This is the first time an American city has had AVs available for rides to the public, following similar programs internationally in Singapore and Helsinki, Finland.
On Thursday, September 14, Uber deployed a “small number” of AVs to service passengers on specific, but unannounced routes in Pittsburgh. These cars will not be able to take passengers anywhere, as they will only operate on roads that have already been mapped and tested by Uber.
The cars will also be manned by a driver who will navigate the cars through particularly difficult situations Uber doesn’t feel comfortable allowing its artificial intelligence technology to handle. The assistant drivers will be able to take control at any moment and subsequently return the car to AV mode seamlessly, without the need to take the vehicle off the road.
This is the most public step Uber has taken with its autonomous technology since announcing its Advanced Technologies Center, a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and located in downtown Pittsburgh, 18 months ago.
Only a handful of other cities in the U.S. have passed laws allowing AVs to take the road along with conventional cars. Google has been testing its AV technology in a number of San Francisco suburbs, and Michigan recently moved to make it easier for the numerous automakers headquartered in the state to put their own AVs on the road.
The technology used to develop AVs relies on huge sets of data that must be gained from onroad testing, so laws like those in Michigan and Pittsburgh are critical for the progression of the technology. That Uber is giving some passengers rides in self-driving cars demonstrates that the future of AVs is not too far away.
Google was one of the first companies worldwide to announce it was developing a self-driving car project back in 2012, and it is projected to be on the market in 2018. Many critics at the time predicted Google was too optimistic with its prediction and AVs wouldn’t be seen on the road until much later, if at all. Uber is proving those critics wrong.
A few weeks after this announcement from Uber, the President of a competing ridesharing company, Lyft, John Zimmer, published a blog post on the platform Medium in which he outlined what he believes to be the future of transportation.
Zimmer expects AVs to handle the majority of rides on ridesharing platforms like Uber and Lyft within five years, and for car ownership in cities to end in the next twenty years. These huge moves by two similar companies show the confidence that many have in AVs is truly not far away. By some metrics, it’s already upon us.
Autonomous vehicles are being tested on roads in over a dozen U.S. cities, and Uber now allowing passengers to take a ride in one further indicates the level of comfort in the technology.
Zimmer predicts AVs will lead to a transportation revolution on par with the first trains and automobiles. At this rate, he might have to wait only a few years to be proven right.