While experts debated whether self-driving cars would be commercially available in 5 or 10 years, Uber raced ahead and put vehicles on the road. Last August, it launched a program in Pittsburgh that allowed people to summon a self-driving car from their phones. At the same time, Uber acquired autonomous-trucking startup Otto. Together, these moves put the company, valued at $68 billion, at the forefront of transportation’s next wave. “The biggest asset and advantage [of our self-driving efforts] is being part of the larger Uber network,” says Raffi Krikorian, engineering director at the company’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh.
Uber deliberately chose Pittsburgh for its first fleet because of the city’s erratic weather and winding roads. “If we can drive in Pittsburgh, we [know we] have the features we need to go and drive in other cities,” Krikorian says. The project has since expanded to Phoenix.
Last summer, Uber signed a $300 million deal with Volvo, which provides the company’s current fleet of human-assisted self-driving cars. The partners intend to debut a fully autonomous one by 2021.
In October, Otto completed the first self-driving 18-wheeler delivery (of 50,000 cans of Budweiser). “[One day] our self-driving Ubers will [be able to] drive highways because the truck team is tackling it,” says Krikorian, “and the trucks will drive in cities because Ubers are [there].”