Uber Revs Engine in Self-Driving Race

Tech News, 19 Aug 2016, 06:00pm GMT

Pittsburgh offers a number advantages for testing a semi-autonomous car. "It is a good test-case location," said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at IHS Markit."You have some weather. You do have some congestion, some winding roads. It is not as big as New York or Chicago, but it is a nice size to test in," she added. "The weather conditions are favorable, but you do have snow and cold, and that can be a benefit in testing a self-driving vehicle."The unique Pittsburgh terrain also is a plus. Known as the "City of Bridges," Pittsburgh includes many hills and winding roads as well, unlike many other cities' uniform grids. 

Uber may need to keep its tests localized in order to succeed."The downside of this test program will be if they go too big too fast," warned Kyle Landry, research associate at Lux Research."Even in a medium-sized city such as Pittsburgh, they need to approach this in scale," he added.

Uber is far from the only company testing autonomous vehicles, and while it is doing so on public roads -- albeit with a human "copilot" -- expanding too quickly could be detrimental to the company's long-term goals. "You start small and prove it is effective in one location, and when you expand to a second location you build on your success," explained Landry. 

"By contrast, NuTonomy is deploying a self-driving taxi in Singapore, but only in one part of the city -- so that is very constrained testing," he noted. "Tesla has deployed vehicles everywhere, and that isn't the best way to test a vehicle."

The acquisition of Otto along with the plans for Pittsburgh-based autonomous tests suggests that Uber's play is one aimed at the commercial market. "The goal is autonomous vehicles -- to get the driver out of the car," explained IHS' Brinley. "Uber isn't trying to sell cars," she said. "This is a mobility play, and a driverless situation will deploy faster in the commercial side. There is great opportunity to change the way that we move goods as well as the way we move people."