Uber just announced plans to introduce autonomous, well semi-autonomous anyway, vehicles to carry passengers in Pittsburgh later this month. Per an interview with Bloomberg, in a plan described as "audacious, even reckless," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick says autonomous cars are "going commercial" because they "cant' just be about science."
Even though the long-term plan is to have completely autonomous vehicles, for now cars in Pittsburgh will have engineers in the driver seat ready to take over at any moment while simultaneously monitoring for "bugs" in the system. As one Uber engineer pointed out, there's a need to keep human drivers in the cars for now as his "autonomous" vehicle suddenly went "un-autonomous" earlier this week while crossing the Allegheny River...but, as he points out, "bridges are really hard." Who cares about bridges? If your car happens to go tumbling off the edge there's usually water below to soften your fall.
On a recent weekday test drive, the safety drivers were still an essential part of the experience, as Uber’s autonomous car briefly turned un-autonomous, while crossing the Allegheny River. A chime sounded, a signal to the driver to take the wheel. A second ding a few seconds later indicated that the car was back under computer control. “Bridges are really hard,” Krikorian says. “And there are like 500 bridges in Pittsburgh.”
As we pointed out in a post earlier this week, to the extent the technology works consistently, avoiding the nasty consequences of death and mayhem in the event of failure, autonomous vehicles are worth big money to Uber and consumers...though not so much for the automotive OEMs (see "Ford Announces Plans To Self-Destruct Starting In 2021"). As we pointed out, the cost of paying drivers is a substantial portion of the ~$1.00 per mile charge paid by Uber riders. To the extent that cost can be removed from the equation then fares charged by companies like Uber will decline materially.
In the long run, Kalanick says, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car.
Unfortunately, for the auto OEMs the story is the exact opposite. In theory, truly autonomous cars could result in substantial increases in passenger car utilization rates and, therefore, declines in annual car sales. But apparently, Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson isn't worried (yes, we can sense the pure optimism in the quote below):
“That could be seen as a threat,” says Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson. “We see it as an opportunity.”
But still, even if the technology works, the question remains how quickly consumers will adopt it, if at all. There certainly has been no shortage of gruesome videos hitting Youtube lately of Tesla vehicles crashing while driving in autopilot mode. As pointed out by an Uber engineer, the sheer statistics of operating vehicles in an uncontrolled environment means that accidents are inevitable.
Although Kalanick and other self-driving car advocates say the vehicles will ultimately save lives, they face harsh scrutiny for now. In July a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot service died after colliding with a tractor-trailer, apparently because both the driver and the car’s computers didn’t see it. (The crash is currently being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) Google has seen a handful of accidents, but they’ve been less severe, in part because it limits its cars to 25 miles per hour. Uber’s cars haven’t had any fender benders since they began road-testing in Pittsburgh in May, but at some point something will go wrong, according to Raffi Krikorian, the company’s engineering director. “We’re interacting with reality every day,” he says. “It’s coming.”
While we're sure autonomous vehicles will be commonplace at some point in the future we have our doubts as to whether they're ready for prime-time just yet. It should be interesting to monitor Uber's success in Pittsburgh.