For the last few months, Uber’s self-driving cars have been prowling the streets of San Francisco, forecasting the inevitable moment when the ride-hailing giant starts inviting passengers to take autonomous trips in the city where it first launched over seven years ago. That moment has finally arrived.
Starting today, anyone in San Francisco who hails an UberX could find themselves in the backseat of a luxury, self-driving Volvo XC90, complete with leather interior, spinning LIDAR sensor, and a trunk full of computing power. It’s where I found myself last week, after being invited out to the Bay Area for a sneak peak before the official launch.
With a fine mist in the air, the car drove itself through South of Market with little fanfare, navigating turns and yielding for distracted pedestrians without any human intervention. The car’s spinning LIDAR sensor and rooftop camera array definitely elicited a few slack-jawed stares from passersby. There were two Uber employees in the front seats, but it was clear that it was the car, not the humans, that was shepherding me into this strange and uncertain future.
As I wrote last September when Uber launched its first self-driving service in Pittsburgh, the experience was equal parts thrilling and mundane: thrilling because of the implications for the future of transportation, and mundane because it was like driving with your overly cautious grandmother. But unlike Pittsburgh, Uber wouldn’t let me get behind the wheel, so all of my impressions of the car’s self-driving capabilities are from the backseat.
Occasionally, the safety driver would take control, like when he wanted to do something that could be perceived as reckless by a computer but totally normal to a human, like cut across three lanes of traffic. And the car occasionally kicked itself out of autonomy mode, forcing the driver to take the wheel. While Uber says the goal is full autonomy, the company admits the technology is not there yet.
While riding in the car is an uneventful experience, keeping pace with Uber's brazen moves to push autonomy onto the public street is not boring. California has some of the strictest autonomous driving rules in the country, and the state’s DMV does not have Uber listed among the companies that have obtained permits to test their vehicles on public roads.
California defines autonomous vehicles as cars that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber says that doesn’t apply to its self-driving cars, which can’t be driven without a human monitoring from the driver seat. “All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” a spokesperson said.
In a statement provided to The Verge, the California DMV urged Uber to obtain an autonomous driving permit. “The California DMV encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars. We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested. Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”
[Update, December 16th, 6:49AM ET: The California DMV sent a letter to Uber ordering the company to cease its self-driving service until it obtains a permit. This came after a video surfaced showing an Uber self-driving SUV in San Francisco running a red light. Uber blamed a human driver for the traffic infraction but has yet to respond to the DMV’s letter.]
But what about the car? The Volvo XC90 is a gorgeous vehicle fit for a family road trip. It was Motor Trend’s “SUV of the Year” last year, and has been described by Car and Driver as “a handsome, square-jawed Swede striving to offer more efficiency and safety than its rivals, while adding a dose of Scandinavian flair.” It’s a fancy way to describe a fancy car, which makes sense when you consider that Uber started out as a luxury service. The company wasn’t going to launch a fleet of self-driving Toyota Camrys for its public debut on its own home turf.
Uber inked a deal with Volvo in August to purchase 100 vehicles by the end of the year, with the goal of outfitting them with the ride-hail company’s autonomous hardware. The cars are built on Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture, the same platform as its S90 and V90 cars.
The partnership is important to note in light of recent reports that both Apple and Google are retooling their self-driving programs to focus on software rather than vehicle manufacturing. Both tech companies are said to have run into hurdles when trying to build their own cars, as they lack both the experience and supply chain knowledge to mass-produce a vehicle of any kind. Uber’s collaboration with Volvo could give it an edge over its competitors.
Compared to the Ford Fusions Uber is using in Pittsburgh, the XC90’s self-driving technology is more streamlined and integrated into the vehicle. There were only seven cameras, down from 22 on the Fusions. Radar sensors are installed behind the front bumper, rather than protruding off the side of the vehicle like an unsightly boil. But the tech isn’t totally unobtrusive: the car still had the spinning LIDAR sensor perched on top to provide a 360-degree laser scan of the environment.
Lior Ron is a jovial Israeli who co-founded Otto, the self-driving truck company acquired by Uber last summer. He now serves as senior director of engineering at Uber’s Advanced Technology Group focused on autonomous driving. I spoke to Ron while standing in between an Otto self-driving truck and an Uber self-driving Volvo — a less-than-subtle message about the company’s unabashed embrace of autonomous technology.
Ron told me that these vehicles are special because they are “designed from scratch” in collaboration with Volvo. “We picked Volvo because they have such a high safety record,” he said, adding that a “couple dozen” would be deployed in San Francisco over the next few months.
In Pittsburgh, Uber only made its self-driving cars available to a select group of loyal users. In San Francisco, anyone who hails an UberX could find one of the company’s self-driving Volvos rolling up to their doorstep. Customers will get a notification on their app that says a self-driving Uber is on the way. And if you’re not willing to trust the robots with your life quite yet, you can opt-out and Uber will send you a boring, human-driven vehicle instead. (No offense to all my human Uber drivers. I love y’all, but you may want to start planning for the future.)
The idea is to expose a broader section of the public to Uber’s self-driving vehicles in the hopes to diffusing some of the skepticism that still surrounds the technology. That said, Uber doesn’t expect to deploy fully autonomous, completely empty vehicles to pick up passengers anytime soon. The technology isn’t there yet, nor is the public ready to accept a vision of ghost vehicles roaming the streets at all hours.
“The drive will be self-driven as much as possible, but not all of it,” Ron said. “This is about operating and iterating on the technology.”
Uber launched its self-driving service in Pittsburgh in part because of that city’s importance to the field of robotics and automation. It’s home to Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, which Uber pillaged to staff its self-driving division. (Recently, it lost three of its top former-CMU engineers.) But Pittsburgh, with its cobblestone streets and 446 bridges, is also a diverse and complex environment for self-driving cars to navigate.
San Francisco poses a different series of challenges for Uber’s self-driving cars, like impossibly steep hills, cable cars, bicyclists, and hordes of smartphone-distracted pedestrians. Plus, as Ron says, San Francisco is home to hundreds of Uber engineers, making the experience of building on and improving the technology that much easier.
Pretty much every automobile and technology company with money to spare is working on self-driving cars, and Uber’s isn’t so different from the competition. But Uber is the first to make theirs publicly available in the US. (A limited trial of self-driving taxis launched in Singapore a few weeks before Uber kick started its Pittsburgh pilot.) It’s a high-risk move for a company known for its devil-may-care attitude toward privacy and regulations.
There have been a handful of high-profile accidents involving self-driving cars, from Google’s fender bender with a bus to a fatal crash involving a Tesla in Autopilot mode. With its fleet about to deploy in such a highly visible way, Uber acknowledges that accidents are inevitable. The company says it will be transparent about its scrapes, no matter the severity. That said, the handful of accidents involving self-driving Ubers in Pittsburgh were first disclosed in media reports, not by Uber. There have been a couple of fender benders, and an instance of one vehicle driving the wrong way on a one-way street. No injuries have been reported involving any of Uber’s self-driving Ford Fusions.
Some of Uber’s competitors dismiss the self-driving trials as publicity a stunt designed to bolster the company’s reputation as a rule-breaker. The technology is good and getting better, but most companies say they won’t make their autonomous vehicles available to the public without a few more years of testing under their belts.
But Uber doesn’t see it that way. For the $68 billion company, these trials in Pittsburgh and San Francisco are about a future of mobility, where people choose a self-driving car they can hail with their phone over a personal vehicle in their driveway. “It doesn’t feel like a publicity stunt for us,” Ron said. “Those cars are real. We’re deploying them in a real market.
He added, “The only way for us and everyone else to learn, to be a responsible guardian of the technology, is to actually experience it one the road with users in a thoughtful, safe way. It’s the only way to make progress.”