Uber's New Self-Driving Volvos Are A Long Way From Being 'Driverless'

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Uber announced last week that it will bring a fleet of self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs to Pittsburgh starting at the end of this month. This is part of a $300 million partnership, with the end goal being a replacement of Uber’s one million human drivers with robot ones. While the fleet is being lauded as “self-driving,” the cars aren’t fully there yet.


Part of the problem lies in the terminology. “Self-driving,” “autopilot,” “driverless” and “autonomous” are all terms that can be interpreted differently, and they are all terms that a lot of people are using when they talk about the new tech in their cars.

Bloomberg Businessweek, which announced the Uber and Volvo partnership, wrote:

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,” [Raffi Krikorian, Uber’s engineering director] says.

Which means that Uber’s Pittsburgh experiment will be using Level 3 autonomy. The cars will not be “self-driving” yet, like the Google Car.

Self-driving and autonomous are not synonymous with “driverless.” This is an important distinction to make, especially if you’re going to start comparing what Uber’s doing with what Google has been doing.


Both the National Highway Safety Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers have determined that the highest level of autonomous driving is basically when people are cargo and can kick it in the back seat while the car drives itself. Nobody needs to chaperone the car.


If we’re going to use Jason’s chart as a rubric, we should also note that the Google Car has been attempting Level 4 autonomy this whole time. The Tesla Autopilot system, where you are not supposed to take your hands off the wheel or do anything else that might be distracting, sits at Level 2.

It’s quite fantastic that Uber is working to achieve Level 4 autonomy. Even though this is not a totally driverless car (yet) that some are making it out to be, it’s still an extremely important vision to autonomous cars and the next stage of ride sharing. The company is definitely ahead of Google on getting autonomous cars out to the public.


Just don’t call them driverless. They’re not there yet.



There are going to be two engineers in the front of the car? What’s the /mile charge going to be? $75?