Uber May Soon Have Self-Driving Cars That Don’t Need Human Backup Drivers

But competitors may be closer to that goal.

byStephen Edelstein| PUBLISHED Jan 18, 2018 12:11 PM
Uber May Soon Have Self-Driving Cars That Don’t Need Human Backup Drivers

Uber is almost ready to begin carrying passengers in self-driving cars without human backup drivers. While he would not specify a start date, Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, told The Associated Press that the company would achieve that goal within the same timeframe as its competitors.

Meyhofer said Uber won't deploy autonomous cars without human backups unless they are proven safe, adding that Uber is "going aggressively" toward truly driverless cars. He noted that Uber started out using two human minders when it began its self-driving car pilot programs in 2016, but now only uses one. Originally, one person sat behind the wheel while a second monitored the car's behavior. The cars have improved to the point where that second person is no longer necessary, Meyhofer said.

But Uber will have to move fast if it wants to match its competitors' progress. Google spinoff Waymo already operates self-driving cars with no human beings behind the wheel, although these cars do not carry passengers. A Waymo employee also accompanies each car. General Motors plans to launch a self-driving car with no manual controls next year.

Meyhofer said Uber currently has 215 autonomous test vehicles carrying passengers with human backup drivers onboard in Phoenix, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Toronto. They cover 80,000 miles per week and have given 50,000 paid rides, he said. Uber has ordered 24,000 Volvo XC90s that will be converted into self-driving cars.

Like Waymo, which currently runs self-driving cars in a geofenced area around Chandler, Arizona, Uber will initially confine testing to a specific area. It will be an area that is already mapped in detail, and doesn't get snow, Meyhofer said. Snow can obscure lane markings and other visual cues that self-driving cars use to orient themselves. Basically, Uber wants cars with no human backup drivers to start with the least-challenging environment possible. That seems like a sensible decision.

Uber's self-driving car project operates in the shadow of a court battle with Waymo. The former Google self-driving car project accuses Uber of using trade secrets stolen by Anthony Levandowski, an engineer who worked for Waymo before joining Uber. The case is currently held up by new evidence of corporate spying by Uber.