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Uber Self-Driving Cars Hit Pittsburgh This Month, Offering Free Rides

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Uber self-driving cars will start roaming the streets of Pittsburgh later this month, offering free rides to passengers who are not afraid to ride in autonomous vehicles.

The company announced back in May that it was ready to start real-world tests and it seems that it's making solid progress at a fast pace. A fleet of self-driving Uber cars will join Uber's active drivers in Pittsburgh, picking up passengers in autonomous vehicle rides.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Bloomberg that a fleet of roughly 100 modified Volvo XC90 vehicles equipped with self-driving technology will soon enter the pilot program in Pittsburgh. Each self-driving car will have one engineer behind the wheel, ready to take over if/when needed, as well as a copilot who will simply observe how the technology performs and take notes. A "liquid-cooled" computer, meanwhile, will be outfitted in the trunk to record trip and map data.

The pilot program will assign Uber's self-driving cars to Pittsburgh passengers at random, and the rides will be free. This means that riders in the area will continue to hail Uber like they usually do via its app, but they might get the surprise of being paired with an autonomous vehicle. Only self-driving rides will be free — if you get a "normal" Uber ride, you'll have to pay for it based on the standard $1.30 per mile local rate.

Uber will not develop its own autonomous vehicles, however. The company will simply team up with carmakers, starting with Volvo, and equip cars with self-driving kits from startup Otto, founded by reputed ex-Googlers. The technology developed by Otto can be outfitted to existing trucks and will be adapted to create a lidar system to guide Uber's self-driving cars.

Uber quietly snatched Otto for its self-driving tech prowess and high-profile personnel, and the deal should close as early as this month. Once that happens, former Googler Anthony Levandowski is expected to lead Uber's self-driving car efforts.

Uber may not be deploying fully autonomous vehicles anytime soon, but launching self-driving cars with engineers behind the wheel is an impressive effort for the time being. That's especially noteworthy considering that Uber is moving at a faster pace than Google, which is widely regarded as the leader in self-driving car efforts.

Volvo, meanwhile, has delivered a "handful" of autonomous test vehicles already, with another 100 set to arrive by the end of the year. The carmaker also signed a $300 million deal with Uber to deliver a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021. Ford promised fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 as well, so the race is heating up.

Until then, riding a modified Volvo XC90 as part of Uber's self-driving car fleet will have to do.

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