By all accounts, 2016 is shaping up to be the year of autonomous vehicle partnerships. On the heels of Ford’s announcement to offer mass-produced commercial ride-sharing and ride-hailing vehicles beginning in 2021 (and a handful of partnerships to facilitate that goal), Uber and Volvo unveiled a partnership that puts 100 specially modified self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs on the streets of Pittsburgh.

The Uber-Volvo deal initially involves a few XC90s and the ride-hailing giant’s Pittsburgh customers will be able to summon a self-driving Volvo by the end of August. The rest of the 100 autonomous XC90s will be delivered by the end of the year.

According to USA Today, this is a $300-million joint project to develop self-driving vehicles. Prior to the announcement of the partnership, Uber has been quietly testing specially-modified Volvo XC90s in Pittsburgh. The city is home to the tech company’s autonomous car research facility.

What’s significant about the Uber-Volvo partnership isn’t the fact that it’s yet another joining of forces. That’s become the mantra this year (GM-Lyft, Google-Chrysler, etc.). As a Bloomberg report notes, even though Google has been testing its self-driving fleet of vehicles for years and Tesla’s Autopilot essentially drives the car by itself on highway roads, no other company or partnership has yet brought a self-driving vehicle to market. Until now.

Uber Specially-Modified Self-Driving Volvo XC90-Photo: Volvo

Uber Specially-Modified Self-Driving Volvo XC90-Photo: Volvo

Details of the Uber-Volvo Deal

For now, the self-driving Volvo XC90s that will be available for Uber customers in Pittsburgh will have safety drivers – professionally trained engineers – sitting in the driver’s seat with their hands on the wheel, ready to take over, if necessary. In addition, a co-pilot will be in the passenger seat, taking notes on a laptop.

Everything inside and outside the specially-equipped Volvo XC90 is recorded by cameras. A tablet in the backseat will provide more complete information to Uber customers, letting them know they’re in a self-driving vehicle and what to expect from the experience.

Automotive News reports that Uber initially will offer these rides in self-driving Volvo XC90s in certain Pittsburgh neighborhoods for free, although sometime after the rollout they will start charging customers for the service.

A Volvo spokesman told the publication that the Swedish company has been working with Uber for about a year on the project, with engineers from both companies working closely together. And Volvo says the deal is not exclusive to Uber, as the carmaker states it intends to sell its autonomous-ready XC90s to additional fleet operators.

Where the two companies differ is in the level of autonomy each intends to pursue, said the Volvo spokesman. Volvo’s plans do not call for vehicles with no human involvement, unlike the vehicles Ford intends to build in five years. Uber has a goal of completely eliminating the driver – called level 5 autonomy.

The Unknowns

What’s not clear about the Uber-Volvo self-driving vehicle roll-out in Pittsburgh are a few of the nitty-gritty details:

  • How will the Uber self-driving Volvos handle bridges?
  • What about handling snow and wet weather conditions where cameras and sensors have a difficult time recognizing traffic signals, other vehicles and lane markings?
  • Are there any regulatory or safety hurdles to overcome before the self-driving fleet begins operations in Pittsburgh the end of August?

Stay tuned. Things in the self-driving arena are rocketing forward. Expect more announcements, breakthroughs in development and movement toward ticking off some of the obstacles standing in the way of self-driving vehicles.

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