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Uber reveals driverless prototype

Uber-aware: The US city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been selected for trials of Uber’s self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrid prototype.

Ford Fusion Hybrid testbed unveiled as Uber autonomous driving prototype in US trial

23 May 2016

RIDE-SHARING giant Uber has cemented its intention to help accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicles by revealing details of its own self-driving prototype, based on a Ford Fusion (Mondeo).

The company is becoming increasingly active in the autonomous vehicle sphere, having last month joined with Ford, Volvo, Google and fellow ride-sharing service Lyft to form a lobby group called ‘The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets’.

This move followed unconfirmed reports in March that Uber placed an order with Mercedes-Benz for at least 100,000 autonomous S-Class limousines – before a production version of the German brand’s flagship model has been launched or even announced with such capability.

Compared with its current outsourcing of vehicles – and therefore business risk – to owner-drivers, Uber’s apparent shift to owning and even developing cars appears to be at odds with its business model.

However, Uber’s greatest cost is the human drivers and a portion of what it pays them goes toward the driver’s vehicle running costs, so by cutting out the driver Uber potentially stands to profit from autonomous technology.

An alternative view is that Uber could be developing autonomous technology to package up and sell to owners of compatible vehicles as a plug-in item, enabling the owner to earn money from their car through Uber when they are not using it and simply summoning it back to base when it is needed.

The official Uber company line is that autonomous vehicles will lead to “less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents”.

“These goals are at the heart of Uber’s mission to make transportation as reliable as running water – everywhere and for everyone,” the company said.

Like most production-car-based autonomous prototypes, the Uber car has a variety of externally mounted equipment including radars, laser scanners and cameras enabling it to map its environment, follow a pre-programmed route and respond to hazards.

Also like other autonomous vehicle prototypes, a human driver remains at the wheel to monitor the on-board systems and take emergency action if required.

Testing is taking place in the US on the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, around 600km west of New York City.

A reporter from local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, took the first media ride in an autonomous Uber, accompanied by the director of Uber’s Pittsburgh-based Advanced Technologies Center (ATC), John Bares.

Mr Bares, a 35-year veteran of the robotics industry, told the Tribune-Review that Pittsburgh’s “narrow and hilly streets, haphazard parking, rainy and snowy weather and ageing infrastructure” made the city an ideal testing ground for Uber’s autonomous technology.

Although Pittsburgh Business Times spotted an Uber-branded Ford Fusion equipped with roof-mounted autonomous driving sensors a year ago, Uber admitted in a statement on its website last week that the technology remains in its infancy.

“While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements,” the company said.

“Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road – pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers.”

Uber also confirmed it has informed and gained the support of local authorities for the testing of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh.

“Our work would not be possible without the support we’ve received from the region’s leaders,” it said.

Pittsburgh mayor William Peduto welcomed the forward-looking Uber trials and the innovation it brings to the city.

“We’re taking another step forward … as home to Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, where some of the world’s leading innovators are helping to shape the future of transportation … as they explore new technologies that can improve people’s lives – through increased road safety, less congestion, and more efficient and smarter cities,” he said.

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