“We are going commercial,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced to Bloomberg Businessweek with regard to the company's decision to allow — conscript? — customers into using its driverless cars in Pittsburgh. “This can’t just be about science.”
Beginning in the next few weeks, riders hailing Uber vehicles in Pittsburgh, the city where Uber formed a strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University only to essentially poach its professors, may find themselves in the backseat of a car that will operate, for the most part, by itself. Those vehicles will be modified Volvo XC90 SUVs sporting sensors, lasers, radar, and GPS, cars procured as part of a $300 million deal with Volvo according to an AP report. Importantly, that deal is not exclusive — Uber will source its driverless cars from whoever can produce them the fastest, in all likelihood, and says it won't make its own cars.
Passengers won't be alone in their autonomous Uber vehicles — not yet, anyway — instead, they'll be joined by two supervisors occupying the front seats, one taking over when necessary and another taking notes and monitoring operations. As a bonus for being a guinea pig in their new vehicles, autonomous Uber rides will be free to riders.
So, this is happening fast... really fast. That's because, as everyone knows by now, it's a race, and furthermore, it's a race Uber can't afford to lose. “The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ride-sharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving car],” Kalanick said “Because if there is not, we’re not going to have any business.” The fight is “is basically existential for us,” Kalanick added.
Somewhat scarily, Raffi Krikorian, the company’s engineering director, admits that Uber's move-fast-and-break-things approach will probably break some things. "We’re interacting with reality every day,” he said to Bloomberg. “It’s coming,” he added, seeming to indicate, by the word it, a disaster, while also very carefully avoiding saying that explicitly.
How did Uber get its self-driving squad into high gear? A key acquisition, announced today, of a self-driving big-rig truck technology called Otto for about $680 million. Otto;s co-founder Anthony Levandowski and others departed Google's autonomous vehicle operations to pursue their startup dreams, considering the problem of large trucks driving by themselves in highway traffic to be within reach. Otto, based in SoMa is already testing its fleet on highways near San Francisco.
Now Uber gets their technology, in particular their own mapping technology, to quickly learn about new environments and speed up self-driving vehicles understanding of roads and obstacles. "Otto plus Uber is a dream team," Kalanick writes in a blog post.
Levandowski and Kalanick met, as one does, at a TED talk, and while planning their union would take long, 1-mile secret walks together. “I feel like we’re brothers from another mother,” Kalanick said of Levandowski. Now they're brothers in arms.