Home / Technology / Uber Aims for an Edge in Race for Self-Driving Future – New York Times
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Uber Aims for an Edge in Race for Self-Driving Future – New York Times

But the Ford and Uber initiatives are not without risk. Federal auto safety regulators are preparing guidelines for autonomous vehicles that may or may not include the need for a steering wheel or require the presence of a driver who can step in should computerized systems falter.

In a nod to the highly experimental nature of its Pittsburgh plan, Uber intends to have an actual human being behind the wheel — just in case. But while Ford is looking five years out, Uber is moving aggressively toward driverless fleets, despite the regulatory uncertainties.

“There’s an urgency to our mission about being part of the future,” Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, said on Thursday in an interview. “This is not a side project. This is existential for us.”

That explains Uber’s other announcement on Thursday — its deal to buy Otto for undisclosed terms, to beef up its own in-house expertise in self-driving technology.

The acquisition of Otto follows Uber’s recent opening of an advanced technology center in Pittsburgh, in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University. The company has also hired engineers directly away from Google, which has been immersed in developing autonomous cars for a decade.

Like Uber, Google is intent on developing self-driving cars for urban taxi use — reasoning that the slow speeds and relatively predictable environment of city streets that can be thoroughly, digitally mapped is the best and safest near-term purpose of autonomous vehicles. But for Uber, such cars are not a side bet but a way to be more fully in control of its business by eliminating the need for drivers who expect to be paid.

“Uber arguably has more at stake in creating self-driving cars than any other automotive entity,” Mr. Brauer said.

Although the market for big sales of fully self-driving cars is still years away, the investment and research activities are on a fast track.

Uber plans to open a 180,000-square-foot facility in Palo Alto, Calif., to house Otto, which will operate as a stand-alone company focused specifically on upending the long-distance trucking industry. Otto engineers will also work out of offices in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

But that talent and technology will apply more broadly to the technology behind Uber’s grander self-driving car efforts, Mr. Kalanick said. He said he believed that his company’s approach — a combination of teaming up with hardware manufacturers, Otto’s software expertise and a large network of more than 50 million monthly riders as recently as July — places Uber in the best position to be competitive with companies like Google.

“The first company in the space is not always the winner,” Anthony Levandowski, chief executive of Otto, said on Thursday. “Intel was not the first chip maker. Facebook wasn’t the first social network.”

The self-driving revolution has already hit a few speed bumps, in vehicles that are not fully autonomous but employ some elements of the technology. The electric-car maker Tesla is under investigation by federal regulators looking into a fatal crash in May of a Tesla Model S sedan whose driver had the vehicle’s Autopilot assisted-driving system engaged.

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After Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was killed driving a Tesla Model S in the first fatality involving a self-driving car, questions have arisen about the safety of the car’s technology.

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The German automaker Daimler was forced recently to pull an advertisement in the United States that possibly overstated the safety of assisted-driving options in a new Mercedes-Benz model.

And Google is continuously explaining how minor accidents are occurring in self-driving vehicles it has been testing for some time in California.

But potential safety concerns have hardly slowed the pace of research and investment by G.M., Ford and others. In Uber’s case, Mr. Kalanick said he was confident that government officials would approve self-driving vehicles once the industry proves their effectiveness in real-world conditions.

“Regulators are going to optimistically make it work, while making it safer for the whole community,” he said.

In the Pittsburgh pilot program, Uber plans not only to have human drivers aboard as a safety precaution. Passengers who use the vehicles will have to “opt in” and agree to be participants in the road test before riding, according to Uber.

G.M. and Lyft are also planning their own testing program for autonomous ride-hailing vehicles, although they have not disclosed details.

That plan, along with this week’s announcements by Uber and Ford make clear that the initial market for robotic cars will likely be for commercial fleets rather than vehicles consumers would park in their own garages.

Industry analysts see ride-hailing firms and delivery businesses as natural customers for the first autonomous vehicles, in part because the cars and trucks are expected to carry high price tags.

Ford officials said this week that ride-hailing services are able to generate the passenger revenues needed to cover the high cost of the cars.

Raj Nair, Ford’s global product development chief, said that eliminating human drivers would drastically lower the cost of a ride-hailing fare. By catering to those companies, Ford expects to build a small, but profitable business segment.

Ford has not said how many self-driving vehicles it expects to produce on an annual basis, or whether it would adapt one of its current models or build an entirely new vehicle.

But the company’s chief executive, Mark Fields, pledged that the vehicles would “bring mobility to millions of people” who do not own cars themselves. And doing so will create a “very good business” for Ford.

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