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Intelligent Machines

Uber’s Robotic Taxis Are Headed to San Francisco

Riders will be able to travel in one of the company’s new autonomous Volvo XC90s.

Uber is expanding its self-driving taxi service to San Francisco.

The ride-hailing company has announced that people hailing an UberX in San Francisco may soon find an autonomous car pulling up to greet them. The venture will be the first outing of the company’s latest autonomous vehicle—Volvo XC90s, bedecked with lidar systems and seven cameras to sense the world around them. According to the Wall Street Journal, just five cars will hit the city’s streets initially, with more being added over time.

Autonomous vehicles could transform the taxi industry by removing the need for human drivers. The company’s Pittsburgh trial, which has been underway for almost three months, and now this effort, are both attempts by Uber to widely deploy self-driving vehicles before its rivals. The MIT spin-off nuTonomy is also running small-scale autonomous taxi services in Singapore and Boston.

The cars are far from perfect. When MIT Technology Review’s Will Knight took a ride in one of those vehicles, he said “the car performed admirably in many difficult situations,” but also noted that “several times the person behind the wheel needed to take control: once so the car didn’t become stuck behind a truck, and once to avoid another vehicle making a sudden turn.”

There’s another sticking point as well. According to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, as of December 8 Uber did not hold a permit for testing its autonomous cars in the state. In a statement, Uber said that it "understand[s] that there is a debate over whether or not we need a testing permit to launch self-driving Ubers in San Francisco," adding that it has "looked at this issue carefully" and decided that it doesn’t believe one is required. It remains to be seen if state officials will agree.

The ride-hailing firm may face more self-driving competition before long. Just yesterday, it was announced that the self-driving car technology being developed by Google will now operate as an independent company called Waymo. The news signals intent to commercialize its research, and sources tell Bloomberg that the company plans to deploy a ride-sharing service with Fiat Chrysler, using semi-autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans, as early as 2017.

(Read more: Uber, The Wall Street Journal, “Uber’s Pittsburgh Project Is a Crucial Test for Self-Driving Cars,” “My Self-Driving Uber Needed Human Help,” “What to Know Before You Get In a Self-Driving Car”)

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