If you listen to some tech pundits, self-driving cars won’t arrive on city streets for several years. But Uber clearly wasn’t listening to those people: the ride-sharing company plans on deploying autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh next month.
Uber’s self-driving cars (Volvo SUVs modified with sensors and an onboard computer) will pick up passengers, but the driver’s seats won’t be empty: an engineer will sit behind the wheel, ready to retake control should something go weird. A “co-pilot” in the front passenger seat will assist. While not every Uber vehicle in Pittsburgh will feature the technology, those passengers who hail a self-driving car at random will end up treated to a free ride.
Uber’s aggression in getting self-driving cars on the road is sure to raise some questions. While Google and other firms have spent the past few years experimenting with autonomous-vehicle technology, few have dared to set their cars loose on actual city streets. Tesla offers “Autopilot” for its high-end electric sedans and SUVs, but that’s meant only for highway driving—and the recent fatality of a driver using the feature has sparked a debate over whether self-driving software is truly ready for the road.
Despite those concerns, Uber is ready to push forward, largely because it feels its whole business model may implode if it doesn’t get onboard with autonomous driving as quickly as possible. “If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing?” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in a recent interview with Business Insider. “Then the future passes us by, basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way.”
Kalanick also doesn’t claim that Uber has solved all the issues inherent in self-driving technology: “It’s not just an engineering challenge that’s deterministic, and I know what I have to build. We are figuring out as we go what has to be built.”
For tech pros who are interested in self-driving technology—whether software engineers who want to get into the algorithms that allow the vehicles to auto-navigate, or hardware masters who like building sensors—Uber’s move may help accelerate the development of the market, especially if other tech firms and automobile companies follow suit with their self-driving fleets. That means more jobs, faster.
And if self-driving fleets expand rapidly, more positions may open up for pros with the skills to maintain and update the vehicles. At least, Kalanick thinks so. “Somebody is going to have to maintain it,” he said in the Business Insider interview.