Uber will start testing the world’s first autonomous taxi fleet in the next few weeks, putting it ahead of Google and Ford in the race to bring self-driving car services to consumers.
The new fleet is part of a partnership between Uber and Volvo that will see the companies jointly invest $300m to develop a new self-driving vehicle.
Uber customers in Pittsburgh will soon be able to hail the first self-driving test vehicles, whichwill be Volvo XC90s, from their smartphones. Drivers will remain behind the wheel during the pilot, which will be free for passengers.
At the same time, Uber announced it had bought Otto, a maker of self-driving technology for trucks, its largest acquisition to date.
Uber has been investing heavily in driverless technologies, which chief executive Travis Kalanickbelieves will be a cornerstone of future city transportation networks. “Uber’s mission— to provide transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone — is not possible without moving into this kind of technology,” Mr Kalanick told the Financial Times.
The tie-up with Volvo underscores how the advent of self-driving cars is rapidly changing the industry, forcing tech start-ups and traditional carmakers to decide whether to work togetheror compete. The decision of Uber to pick Volvo as its development partner is a coup for the Swedish carmaker best known for its focus on safety.
“We see this as the first step in a long-term industrial partnership,” Hakan Samuelsson, Volvochief executive, told the Financial Times. He added that smart maps may be another area of future co-operation between the two companies.
The acquisition of Otto will heighten Uber’s driverless competition with Google ownerAlphabet, at a time when Google’s own head of driverless technology has recently left. Otto wasfounded by several prominent ex-Alphabet employees including Anthony Levandowski.
Uber’s effort to develop driverless cars began last year, when it poached dozens of researchersfrom the robotics department of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and set up its ownresearch centre in the city.
Otto’s investors will receive an equity stake in Uber of slightly less than 1 per cent, as well as20 per cent of profits from Uber’s future trucking business.
The deal also marks Uber’s first foray into long-haul trucking.
One component of Uber’s driverless car research is developing its own maps and mapping software, and the company is prepared to spend half a billion dollars on mapping efforts around the world. Uber already has mapping vehicles gathering images and data on roads in the US and Mexico.
The founders of Otto said in a blog post that they were combining with Uber to “build the backbone of the rapidly-approaching self-driving freight system”. The company has been testing an “interstate autopilot” system that allows drivers to snooze in their cabs.
Mr Samuelsson said the partnership would reduce its development costs by half, and boost volumes through the sale of cars to Uber.