Beginning this month, Uber will allow customers in Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars, making it the first tech company to make its fleet of semi-autonomous vehicles available for public consumption. Not even Google, which kicked off the technological wave, has made it this far.
The vehicles will be Volvo XC90s supervised by human drivers.
These professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening.
Uber plans to have 100 Volvos outfitted with its rig of lasers, sensors, and cameras by the end of the year.
Users will be randomly selected to try autonomous vehicles (and, as an added bonus, those rides will be free). Pittsburgh has long been the test site for Uber’s autonomous division because it is the location of Carnegie Mellon, whose staff of robotics experts was raided by the ride-share company.
In May, Uber engineers praised the city for how much of a pain in the butt it is to drive in. “We view it as, it’s not quite Everest, but it’s a hard mountain … but the beautiful thing is we do have that mountain right out of our front door to climb,” division head John Bares said at the time.