Near the end of 2014, Uber co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick flew to Pittsburgh on a mission: to hire dozens of the world’s experts in autonomous vehicles. The city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has produced many of the biggest names in the newly hot field.
That’s a bit of a whitewashing. What happened is that Uber approached Carnegie Mellon to create a “strategic partnership”. Uber’s strategy, it turned out, was to identify CMU’s best engineers and hire them away. As I wrote at the time, their “partnership” was like that between a fox and a henhouse.
The goal: to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers — as quickly as possible.
The plan seemed audacious, even reckless. And according to most analysts, true self-driving cars are years or decades away. Kalanick begs to differ. “We are going commercial,” he says in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “This can’t just be about science.”
Jobs that can be performed by machines eventually will be performed by machines. That’s been the steady march of progress since the dawn of the industrial revolution. But it really is extraordinary for a CEO to flatly declare that he considers the company’s workforce not to be an asset, but rather a stopgap measure he’s committed to eliminate. Say what you want about the politics of his bluntness, but he certainly deserves points for honesty.
Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.
Google has certainly generated a lot of publicity regarding its self-driving vehicle efforts, but I am not convinced they’re the “leader in the field”. For one thing, Google’s cars only go 25 MPH. I’ve ridden in a self-driving Mercedes S-class sedan. Not only did it travel at highway speeds, but it didn’t have any obtrusive cameras or sensors. It looked like a regular Mercedes sedan — except for the fact that it had “S 500 Intelligent Drive” painted in large letters on the side of the car. The engineers I spoke with at Mercedes were adamant that even now, while the technology is still in development and years away from production, the cars need to look beautiful. Any sensors that make the car look silly are out of the question.
Perhaps Mercedes is too rooted in tradition in this regard. The first automobiles really did look like “horseless carriages”. Perhaps we’ll soon adapt to self-driving cars equipped with telltale obtrusive sensors. But right now, Mercedes has prototypes on the road that are remarkably close to full autonomy, yet don’t look any different. If Mercedes is correct that customers (or at least Mercedes customers) won’t want to buy self-driving cars that look ungainly, they have a significant leg up on competitors whose sensor arrays protrude. The technology isn’t everything — design matters.
Update: If you disagree — if you think the outward appearance of a self-driving car doesn’t matter, only the comfort and amenities of the interior — I think you’re being shortsighted. If all self-driving cars are ungainly-looking, they’ll still sell. Uber is already buying ungainly-looking self-driving cars. But what happens when a company starts selling good-looking self-driving cars? Cars are status symbols — even cars you don’t own. What else explains the existence of black town cars? A lot of people used to argue that the exterior design of personal computers didn’t matter, either — only the functionality. No one argues that anymore.
For now, Uber’s test cars travel with safety drivers, as common sense and the law dictate. These professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening. “The goal is to wean us off of having drivers in the car, so we don’t want the public talking to our safety drivers,” Krikorian says.
On a recent weekday test drive, the safety drivers were still an essential part of the experience, as Uber’s autonomous car briefly turned un-autonomous, while crossing the Allegheny River. A chime sounded, a signal to the driver to take the wheel. A second ding a few seconds later indicated that the car was back under computer control. “Bridges are really hard,” Krikorian says. “And there are like 500 bridges in Pittsburgh.”
It’s easy to roll your eyes at the use of the term “self-driving” to describe a car with two employees in the front, ready to take control at a moment’s notice. But the fact that regular people will soon be taking real-world rides where no human takes any control throughout the trip is a genuine milestone. We’re on the cusp of the biggest change to the car industry, ever.