Self-driving SUVs by year-end

San Francisco-based Uber and Sweden’s Volvo Cars have formed a $300 million partnership that could put a fleet of self-driving XC90 plug-in hybrid SUVs on the road in Pittsburgh, PA in a matter of weeks.

The first of 100 XC90s have already been delivered to Uber and could be deployed in the ride-hailing service’s fleet this fall, if there are no engineering issues.

Uber Volvo

When the vehicles are put into service, two Uber employees will sit in the front seats. One will be ready to take immediate control of the vehicle, and the other will be monitoring the driver and the vehicle while taking notes on a computer.

The next stage for Volvo will be Fully Autonomous Driving, and they plan to use this as their base vehicle.

Uber is buying the XC90s from Volvo and adding the self-driving software and hardware that it developed in its Pittsburgh tech center, which opened only 20 months ago.

Uber will be extensively re-engineering 100 XC90s, adding components such as lidar (a laser radar technology), radar, additional cameras and sensors, as well as computers and software. These modifications will enable the seven-seat SUV to effectively drive itself.

Volvo is also working on a new version of the XC90 that will be built with autonomous driving equipment from the factory. This new version of the SUV will eventually enable level 4 autonomy – meaning a person must be in the driver’s seat, but the vehicle can drive itself. A launch date has not been announced.

Uber is aiming for level 5 autonomy which completely eliminates the driver. During the initial rollout of the autonomous fleet in certain areas of Pittsburgh’s city limits, the rides will be free. Eventually, Uber will start charging.

The timeframe to get autonomous vehicles on the road is extremely ambitious by auto industry standards. They are suggesting a timeframe between September and the end of 2016. The engineers at Uber tech center are extremely efficient and have accomplished in 18 months, what many companies can’t accomplish in many years.

The partnership of a hi-tech taxi service and what is arguably the safest vehicle manufacturer on the road should prove to be a great stepping off point for autonomous vehicles. The idea that it could happen so quickly is a testament to the speed at which technology grows in the 21st Century.

Uber Volvo