Uber To Offer Free Rides In Its Self-Driving Volvo XC90 Later This Month

Self-driving cars might be the future of transportation, but for Uber, the time to pounce is now. Uber's ultimate goal is to replace the ride service's more than 1 million flesh and blood drivers with autonomous vehicles, and it wants to do it as soon as possible. While it seems premature to think about such a thing, Uber's going to let customers in downtown Pittsburgh virtually thumb rides from self-driving cars using their smartphones.

Some riders who request rides will be picked up in specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles. The autonomous vehicles will sport an array of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers to navigate the roadways and avoid accidents with other vehicles and pedestrians. It sounds sketchy to let self-driving cars take full control at this early stage, but for the time being, human drivers will sit behind the wheel and co-pilot the vehicles as needed.

Volvo XC90

This isn't an exclusive arrangement between Uber and Volvo. Uber also has a fleet of modified Ford Fusion Hybrid vehicles under development at its Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh. They're in prototype form and have been roaming the local roads gathering mapping data. Like the specially equipped Volvo XC90 vehicles, there's always a human in the driver's seat to take control as needed.

"Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world,” Uber wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “1.3 million people die every year in car accidents — 94 percent of those accidents involve human error. Right now we're focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it's safe for everyone on the road—pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers."

While companies like Google and Tesla typically dominate the headlines related to self-driving cars, Uber is very much involved in the category with a vested interest in seeing it through. Just last month, Uber acquired Otto, a driverless truck startup with a team of talented engineers that previously worked for top tech firms. Its founders were key members of Google's own ongoing autonomous vehicle effort.

One of Otto's most promising developments is the ability for big-rigs to navigate onto highways. Sometime in the future, such a thing could allow a tired driver to catch a few Zs in the cabin. But that's a long way off, as the technology is quite ready for that sort of thing, nor would lawmakers allow it at this early stage.

As for the trial in Pittsburgh, customers will be randomly paired with self-driving cars. Those who end up with one will get to ride for free.