Uber Expands Its Self-Driving Car Service to San Francisco

Uber Expands Its Self-Driving Car Service to San Francisco
By MIKE ISAAC DEC. 14, 2016

An Uber self-driving car in San Francisco. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each vehicle and can take over when needed. Credit Uber

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber has always had a special relationship with this city. The ride-hailing company was founded and headquartered here. In its early days, one of the towns where Uber grew fastest was its hometown.

On Wednesday, Uber again highlighted its special relationship with San Francisco. The company has started offering its self-driving car service to passengers here, making it the second place in the world where Uber offers autonomous vehicles for public use.

It also marks the debut of the XC90 self-driving car, a Volvo sport utility vehicle outfitted with lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams; wireless technology; and seven different cameras. It was produced in collaboration with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, the company’s driverless tech division based in Pittsburgh. Uber began offering self-driving car service in Pittsburgh this year.

“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in a blog post.

The rollout in San Francisco is another step by Uber to improve its driverless automobile technology, which the company soon hopes to put into cars beyond the XC90 and Ford Fusion. Uber is racing to get its self-driving technology out widely before its rivals, as many large tech competitors are trying to bring autonomous vehicles to consumers on a broad scale.

On Tuesday, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, said it would spin off its self-driving research wing into a stand-alone company called Waymo, a signal that the project may be nearing commercialization after years of internal testing. Apple is in the midst of rethinking its automotive strategy. And companies like Tesla and Lyft continue to work on self-driving software.

Uber debuted its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh in September after months of testing. The launch was limited, with a small number of vehicles offered to some of Uber’s most frequent passengers in a few square miles of the city.

Uber and Google both made announcements this week that offer the latest signs that autonomous cars have arrived — and may be driving our city streets sooner than we think.

San Francisco’s rollout will be on a larger scale. Starting Wednesday, any passenger who requests a ride from UberX, one of the cheaper options of the service, may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Those chosen will receive a notification inside the Uber app, where they can accept, or cancel and request a regular driver. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each self-driving vehicle and can take over when needed.

Three passengers will be able to fit into the XC90 vehicles. Riders will be able to play with a large touch screen that displays the route the car is taking, as well as a rendered version of the environment the car sees through its cameras and laser guidance systems. Uber also lets passengers take selfies from a camera facing the back seat, which they can email to themselves and share on social media.

It is unclear if Uber is allowed to test its driverless vehicle technology within San Francisco. As of Dec. 8, the company’s name was not listed on California’s Department of Motor Vehicles website as one that held a permit to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Other companies, including Google, Tesla and General Motors, all hold permits to test autonomous vehicles in California.

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s D.M.V. definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

Calls to the California D.M.V. were not returned.

Besides the desire to offer self-driving cars in its home city, Uber is using the expansion of the autonomous vehicle program to test routes and terrain beyond what it experienced in Pittsburgh.

“We drove in the rain and other kinds of weather, and we’ve added lane-changing capabilities since we started in September,” Mr. Levandowski said in an interview, adding that Uber has faced no major issues in its testing in Pennsylvania thus far.

San Francisco, of course, is known for its earthquakes and is famously hillier than many American cities.

“Now we want to see how we operate in this new environment, especially with the giant hills that San Francisco has to offer,” Mr. Levandowski said.



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