You are all set for a night on the town and being responsible you order yourself an Uber. Now imagine that the app tells you that a Toyota Corolla Quest is on its way but in the area where the driver’s name usually is, there is just a blank space.
How could this be, you wonder. Then the Corolla arrives and the driver’s seat is empty. You climb into the back seat. The car moves away. Normally after a couple of beverages you are more relaxed than usual, but now you are feeling sober as you put on your seatbelt and adjust your way of thinking.
Is this the future? Well it might surprise you to hear that Uber is already trialling self-driving cars. In August 2016 the ride-hailing company announced it was partnering with Volvo to trial driverless vehicles and now that trial is under way in San Francisco after initial trials in Pittsburgh.
Volvo supplies the vehicles with the necessary under the skin hardware for self-driving vehicles, but then Uber adds its own autonomous technology.
Uber also adds a technician who sits behind the steering wheel. Technically it is not actually legal anywhere in the world yet for a vehicle to operate without a human being in the driver’s seat who can take over control should the need arise. However, the “driver” is really just a technician who is monitoring the vehicle as part of the trial.
It is a big step forward from many of the trials which are taking place elsewhere in the world. San Francisco has busy traffic, hills and plenty of obstacles in the form of roadworks and other things. They are all hurdles for the self-driving car to have to deal with, making this one of the first real world trials.
It is, of course, also a trial that will put fear into many an Uber driver. The company prides itself on creating employment, making entrepreneurs out of its drivers who operate almost as though they are running their own small business. A self-driving Uber destroys that model and renders the human behind the wheel, the person who appears in the corner of the app screen, unnecessary.
San Francisco is tech central, a forward thinking and forward looking city (albeit one with trams), but we do not expect self-driving technology in the Corolla Quest anytime soon.
The partnership with Volvo is interesting. Uber has avoided using any of the US car makers, even with Ford promising autonomous ride-hailing vehicles by 2021. As Uber itself points out, Volvo is synonymous with safety, allowing passengers to feel a little more relaxed in a car that drives itself.
Volvo will also get its biggest autonomous vehicle trial under way in its home town of Gothenburg, Sweden in 2017. One hundred vehicles will be provided to members of the public as part of the trial.
Volvo is not alone. Most car makers are chasing the vision of a car that can drive us to work. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla are far ahead in the game, but others are working hard to catch up. General Motors (GM) recently announced it had expanded its own trials which it began early in 2016. GM already has 40 autonomous vehicles in its test fleet, many of which are in San Francisco. It is now also testing its autonomous Bolt electric vehicles around its technical centre in Michigan, US.
“Revolutionising transportation for our customers while improving safety on roads is the goal of our autonomous vehicle technology, and today’s announcement gets us one step closer to making this vision a reality,” says GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra.
“Our autonomous technology will be reliable and safe, as customers have come to expect from any of our vehicles.”
In January 2016, GM also announced it was investing $500m in a team to work on its autonomous vehicles. Car makers are clearly pouring money and resources into autonomous vehicles. The question is no longer if they will be viable for our roads, but when. – Mark Smyth