Uber’s self-driving cars have a new challenge: The hills of San Francisco.
On Wednesday, the company is launching a new self-driving car pilot similar to the program it’s already running in Pittsburgh.
Uber riders who request an UberX have a chance to be matched with a self-driving vehicle, although there’s no way to specifically request one. A trained driver and engineer still have to sit in the front seat and be ready to take over at a moment’s notice. The goal though is to have the fleet of a dozen or so vehicles largely driving themselves through the compact and crowded streets of a big city.
“San Francisco is a very hilly city, so hills is a new capability we’re going to be launching. We’re also adding lane changes as well as handling bicycles,” Uber’s self-driving vehicle leader, Anthony Levandowski, said in a press conference. “A lot of people like to bike in SF and there’s amazing bike lanes. There’s also a lot more dense traffic, so we’re able to handle some of that, or at least we’re trying to handle it.”
Compared to the Pittsburgh pilot, the cars tackling San Francisco’s streets are brand new and a landmark for the company. Instead of a retrofit of a car already on the market, this is the first time Uber has worked with an automaker to help design a vehicle for its autonomous systems.
As part of its partnership with Volvo, the two collaborated on a reconfiguration of the Volvo XC90 SUV. It looks the same from the outside, except for the cameras and a LIDAR unit (lasers that scan the world) swirling on top.
Compared to riding in one of Uber’s self-driving trucks, the Volvo part is a much more polished experience — one that has to meet the standards of Uber riders. In the Otto truck, much of the equipment for the self-driving technology, including the computers to hide it, were stacked in the truck cab. Inside Uber’s Volvo, the differences are mainly the additional screens and a giant red kill switch that remind you that this car can drive itself.
What it’s like to actually ride one
Inside the car, Uber riders will be able to see what those cameras and sensors are seeing on a tablet mounted in the backseat. When the car switches off self-driving mode, the tablet goes back to the normal maps screen like in the Uber app so you can track your progress to your destination.
As a rider inside the car, the changing screen is the main way to tell when the car is shifting between a human driver and a computer driver.
During a 10-minute press demo in San Francisco’s SOMA neighbourhood, Uber’s self-driving car left the lot and gracefully handled being immediately cut off by a parking meter maid. Yet it stumbled in other parts and beeped for the driver to take control, like going around a truck parked in the lane.
The experience felt like riding with a 16-year-old just learning to drive: a little jerky and a little uncertain. When one pedestrian entered the left side of the street to cross to a raised bus stop in the middle, it hastily slowed down — unsure whether the human would stop or continue into its path. A more seasoned driver (human or computer) would have kept an eye on the person instead of braking out of an abundance of caution, knowing that the pedestrian might keep walking since the raised pedestrian zone was clearly there.
An abundance of caution was the theme for the ride — which isn’t a bad thing given the crazy happenings that define the crowded streets of San Francisco. The car braked early at lights and left a lot of space in between the car in front of it. Unlike impatient humans, it also didn’t creep slowly at an intersection waiting for a light to turn green.
Uber’s Levandowski cautioned that these are still the early days of Uber’s pilot programs (the Pittsburgh pilot is only three months old), but it’s crucial to get the experience driving in a city like San Francisco if it eventually wants to bring the technology to the 540 cities it operates in worldwide.
“I really do think the most important thing that computers are going to do in the next 10 years is drive cars,” Levandowski told Business Insider. “If you think about it, there’s no good reason why you want to own your own car. Your car is about safe, effective, and reliable transportation and that’s what Uber is about as well.”
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