Uber joins the driverless car race

Is this the beginning of the end for car ownership?

It’s been in the pipeline for a while now, but car-hailing giants Uber have finally done it – they’ve released the first driverless taxis. Last week, Uber allowed regular users in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to experience a ride in one of 14 autonomous Ford Fusions. The models are fitted with no less than 20 cameras, seven lasers and rooftop-mounted GPS. Although the service officially began picking up passengers on the 14 th of September, Uber have been quietly testing their fleet for months, and Pittsburgh provided the perfect laboratory, with a varied urban environment including hills, bridges and rivers.

Obstacles to adoption

The release of Uber’s fleet has sent shockwaves through the automotive community, but there’s a long way to go before driverless cars are common. This is mainly due to the sheer amount of technology that goes into creating a driverless car that is both functional and safe. Ensuring safety seems to be one of the biggest barriers to wider adoption. The cars are designed to conform to the rules of the road, and because of this the systems find it hard to deal with situations that don’t follow these rules. For example, if a group of school children ran over a crossing before the red man had turned green, a human driver would slow down and let them cross with mild irritation. A driverless car, on the other hand, would not expect pedestrians to go against the signal and might just keep on going. This is clearly a huge problem for developers, who have to find a way for vehicles to adapt to every possible eventuality on the road… It’s also pretty good motivation for pedestrians to stick to the Green Cross Code. In current test rides, two operators are present to respond to these scenarios.

Disrupting car ownership and road systems

Even with the need for continued development and testing, Uber has taken the first steps towards a complete upheaval of the transportation industry. For the most part, Uber’s venture will implicate the automotive sector, namely car ownership. Recently, there has been a perceived decline in the purchase of new cars. A number of factors have contributed to this, including the rise of car-sharing and the reluctance of younger generations to drive. The advent of driverless taxis is set to accelerate apathy towards owning a vehicle for practical and financial reasons – why shell out for your own vehicle when the price of hiring a taxi is far less than the combined cost of initial purchase and maintenance?

The rise of autonomous vehicles, whether part of Uber’s fleet or not, will fundamentally disrupt the way that roads work. With less reliance on human drivers, traffic could be controlled externally by smart systems that connect with autonomous cars. GPS-enabled vehicles will recognise (and perhaps even predict) congestion on the roads before actually reaching it, and will find alternative routes.

Avoiding traffic is great, but as always there’s also the employment angle to consider. Although the Pittsburgh test fleet employs two human operators per car just in case the driverless system malfunctions, more testing will lead to greater confidence, which will eventually remove the need for sit-in cabbies. Uber currently employs 6,700 people… That’s a lot of jobs at risk. However, the company is very unlikely to put all of their eggs in one basket and get rid of human drivers altogether. Some passengers will always prefer to be driven by another human being – Uber might respond to this by offering users the choice between one of their standard cabs or a flashy new Ford Fusion.

The business angle

From a business perspective, Uber has always been a company to watch. After the launch of their driverless fleet, in partnership with perhaps the most well-known car manufacturer of all time, it will be interesting to see how the automotive industry responds. Volvo recently went into partnership with Uber to develop autonomous technology – the Swedish automaker will either be left feeling abandoned by the taxi company, or they’ll have something even bigger than the Pittsburgh fleet in the making. Tesla Motors and Google will be looking on with interest from Silicon Valley. Uber have certainly set the bar high, but it’s difficult to imagine that they can’t meet this challenge. Although the Uber fleet has been confined to Pittsburgh for months, it’s only a matter of time before the company expands into another city. We could even see a race between competitors to release operational fleets in different areas – think automotive Monopoly.

So, Uber has nipped competitors in the bud by offering a functional, autonomous service. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and it could even be suggested that they’re running before they can walk by offering a so-called driverless service that actually requires two drivers. Problems aside, the company has made a pioneering move towards the greater adoption of driverless taxis which could signal the beginning of the end for displaced cabbies. It could also accelerate the continued decline of car ownership, and change the way that traffic control systems work. Either way, Uber steadily continues on its path to transportation domination. It’s only a matter of time before they expand their new service into other global cities – competitors will have to put pedal to the metal in order to keep up.

This article was written by Laura Cox, Content Manager at DISRUPTIONHUB


Would you use a driverless taxi? Can developers ever ensure that the systems are completely safe?

How will Google and other competitors respond to the Pittsburgh fleet?

Let us know your thoughts and comments below.