Uber (NYSE: UBER) recently announced a new self-driving SUV, made by Volvo, that it plans to eventually use in its ridesharing service. For years, Uber has used 250 of Volvo's SUVs for autonomous vehicles, but the updated version adds some significant improvements.
The company said that its self-driving artificial intelligence system will allow the vehicles to drive themselves on highways by using autonomous steering, braking, and acceleration but will still be equipped with a steering wheel and pedals for humans.
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Uber only has 12 of the prototype versions of the new self-driving XC90s, and they aren't on public roads just yet, but the ridesharing company said that it's going to add them to its fleet soon.
"Our goal is [to] get each one of you to where you want to go much better, much safer, cheaper," Uber's Advanced Technologies Group chief scientist Raquel Urtasun told Reuters.
Uber is hoping to eventually use self-driving vehicles to drive down the cost of operating its ridesharing service by using autonomous vehicles instead of human drivers. But even with this seemingly big step toward adopting fully autonomous vehicles into its fleet, it's going to take a while before Uber's driverless vehicle technology is used at mass scale.
This won't change Uber's business anytime soon
The company said that it would likely have some of the new self-driving XC90s, without safety drivers inside, on the roads within the next few years. The head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group said, "[W]e're not going to get to thousands of cars in a city overnight. It's going to be a slower introduction."
Uber has recently taken a slow-and-steady approach to autonomous vehicles, containing the bulk of its public tests in Pittsburgh. As of now, Uber has a handful of autonomous vehicles on the road in the city but they all have safety drivers behind the wheel and are restricted to driving a designated one-mile stretch of road. Uber's cautious approach to public tests likely stems from a fatal collision involving a pedestrian and one of its self-driving SUVs in 2018. Uber hasn't been charged in the crash, but it's still unknown whether the Uber safety driver will be held responsible.
Autonomous vehicles are expected to be a huge part of ridesharing services in the coming decades, with Intel estimating that they could be a large part of a $3.7 trillion consumer mobility market by 2050. Uber's ridesharing rival Lyft has already made some gains in this area by partnering with Aptiv to bring 50,000 autonomous rides to users in Las Vegas.
But the shift from human drivers to computer-controlled ones will be slow. Uber and other ridesharing companies will need to ensure that their technology is safer than human drivers, and even when they do, it could take a while before riders feel safe cruising around in a car that controls itself.
Uber's technology is still too unproven to release on public roads at a large scale just yet. Investors should be pleased to see the company making incremental steps toward more automation, but Uber is still years away from autonomous vehicles significantly lowering its costs or replacing its drivers.
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