It’s been a while since news broke in early 2015 that Uber was working on self-driving cars. Earlier this year, the company openly admitted it was testing cars in Pittsburgh, but we haven’t heard much more over the last 18 months.
With Google, the self-driving car leader, slowly making progress with its autonomous cars, you’d be forgiven for thinking Uber’s efforts are far behind and barely visible in its frenemy‘s rearview mirror.
Well think again!
It turns out Uber has been making very rapid progress on its plan to replace its one million-plus drivers with computers. Bad news if you’re an Uber driver…
In an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Travis Kalanick revealed that the company is preparing to add self-driving cars to its fleet of active drivers in Pittsburgh as soon as this month.
The company will deploy around 100 modified Volvo XC90s outfitted with self-driving equipment. Each vehicle will be staffed by one engineer, who can take the wheel as/when needed, and a co-pilot to observe and take notes. There will also be a “liquid-cooled” computer sitting in the trunk recording trip and map data.
That will mean that regular Uber punters in the city have a chance of getting an autonomous vehicle for their ride — their trip will be free if so.
Precious little was known of Uber’s plans for self-driving cars, but the company told Bloomberg that it will outfit cars with autonomous driving kits rather than develop its own vehicles as Google is doing.
To do that, Uber has quietly snapped up Otto, a promising startup that launched this year to bring self-driving technology to trucks. Otto’s technology can be fitted to existing trucks, and, according to Bloomberg, the technology will be adapted to create a lidar — laser detection — system to power autonomous Uber vehicles.
The Otto acquisition is hugely notable, not only for the technology but the personnel involved.
The company was founded by former Googlers Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron, Don Burnette, and Claire Delaunay. Levandowski led Google’s self-driving car efforts, Ron was an executive on Google Maps and Motorola, while other staff have spent time with Apple, Tesla and other notable automotive firms.
The deal is set to close as soon as this month, after which Levandowski will lead Uber’s driverless car efforts. In addition, two new R&D centers will open up to speed the technology’s development.
“We were really excited about building something that could be launched early,” Levandowski told Bloomberg of why he left Google.
His additional comments — which include calling Kalanick a “brother from another mother” — hint at frustrations with the slow speed of development from Google’s self-driving project. Uber, it seems, is more willing to move forward with self-driving at a faster pace.
Time will tell how that plays out, but we’ll get our first glimpse soon enough.
For more on today’s Uber news, read:
Uber acquires self-driving truck startup Otto
Jobless in the self-driving economy