One day, the Uber that comes to fetch you might not have anyone in the driver's seat. On Thursday, Uber announced that it will begin testing an autonomous Ford Fusion hybrid on the streets of Pittsburgh, home to Uber's Advanced Technology Center.
Drivers in Pittsburgh should have no problem spotting the research vehicle—it's carrying an array of sensors on its roof that includes a radar, lidar, and cameras. The Uber test car will actually be mapping its surroundings in addition to testing out autonomous driving—although there will be a human operator in the driver's seat at all times to take over at a moment's notice.
We've known for some time that Uber has had an interest in autonomous vehicles. In the past, the company had been working with Google, but that relationship apparently deteriorated last year. It's not the only ride-sharing service looking to ditch the human aspect, either. In January, we reported that General Motors invested $500 million in Lyft with the goal of developing a network of self-driving taxis.
It's also a somewhat confusing move for Uber given the company's current business model. There's a big difference between having a platform for people to use their own cars versus owning a vast fleet of vehicles itself. Right now, the company doesn't have to worry about—or pay for—maintenance, depreciation, insurance, or fuel; that's all outsourced to its drivers. Becoming a fleet operator changes the situation, with plenty of capital expenditure required—not just for the cars themselves but also for the infrastructure to maintain and park them when not in use.
But don't expect a driverless taxi any time soon. Outside of some very well-mapped areas like Palo Alto, we're still quite a long way from having sufficiently developed autonomous driving technology to be able to deploy proper level 4 cars (that can drive from A to B with no human interaction beyond telling the car the destination); almost every expert Ars has spoken to thinks 2030 might be a realistic target. That should give Uber plenty of time to save up some cash that it's going to need if this plan is going to work.