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Car and Driver: Volvo and Uber Partnering to Build Autonomous XC90s, Plans to Test Fleet in Pittsburgh


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IntelliSafe Auto Pilot interface

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Another day, another blockbuster milestone on the road to the autonomous future. Volvo and Uber announced Thursday they are entering a partnership to develop vehicles that encompass self-driving technology. Those cars are expected to be used in a pilot project that will hit U.S. roads by the end of the year.

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That project, located in Pittsburgh, will involve approximately 100 of Volvo’s XC90 SUVs. Customers will be permitted to summon the self-driving vehicles from their smartphones as part of Uber’s ride-hailing service, Bloomberg reported Thursday.

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At least in the early phase of the testing, those cars will have human drivers acting as safety nets behind the wheel. But eventually, Volvo officials say the project will test “fully autonomous driverless cars.”

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“We are very proud to be the partner of choice for Uber, one of the world’s leading technology companies,” Volvo president and chief executive officer Håkan Samuelsson said in a written statement. “This alliance places Volvo at the heart of the current technological revolution in the automotive industry.”

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“If that sounds like a big deal—well, it is.”
-—Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
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The companies are contributing a combined $300 million to the project, which is centered around testing the XC90 as a base vehicle for autonomous operations. The cars will be manufactured by Volvo and then purchased by Uber, which will deploy its own self-driving technology in the vehicles. Development work will be conducted by Volvo Cars and Uber engineers, who will work on building the XC90s on Volvo’s SPA platform.

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Both companies intend to continue pursuing their own, independent autonomous technologies and both view their partnership as a “longer term industrial partnership,” according to Volvo.

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Volvo is scheduled to test its own self-driving technology in separate projects that are similar in scope. Next year, the company’s “Drive Me” testing is scheduled to get under way in Gothenburg, Sweden. That project will allow 100 regular customers to test semi-autonomous technology on designated roads. Similar projects will follow in London and China. The Swedish company has taken a leadership position in self-driving developments. Last year, Samuelsson said Volvo would accept liability for all crashes caused by its self-driving technology.

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Taxi Drivers Protest Possible Uber Expansion In NYC

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For Uber, the upcoming testing marks a first step toward marrying autonomous tech with ride-hailing services, a combination that many transportation experts believe could fundamentally alter how people and goods move around urban environments. By removing the expense of human drivers from commercial operations that range from traditional taxis to the current state of ride hailing to delivery services, Uber and others believe they can beat the costs associated with traditional vehicle ownership. Earlier this month, in announcing its own pilot project, Delphi estimated those costs can exceed $3 per mile in the city with commercial drivers employed; autonomous cars could reduce those expenses to as little as 90 cents per mile.

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As with many aspects of autonomous development, the technology and testing developments are outpacing any regulations that might govern deployment on public streets. Currently, Pennsylvania has no laws on the books that address autonomous operations. In May, several state senators introduced a bill that would mandate a licensed driver be in charge of autonomous operations, and that vehicles be equipped with a means to engage and disengage the technology in a way that’s easily accessible to the operator.

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Senate Bill 1268 would seemingly throw a wrench into Uber and Volvo’s plans to eventually test fully autonomous cars without a driver behind the wheel, but it remains in committee. Meanwhile, Department of Transportation officials are expected to deliver federal guidance on autonomous vehicle operations by the end of the summer.

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Thursday’s partnership with Volvo wasn’t Uber’s only autonomous news. The company said it has acquired Otto, a start-up tech company that’s developing self-driving trucks. Otto’s co-founder, Anthony Levandowski, will now lead the company’s combined self-driving efforts in both personal transportation and trucking.

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“If that sounds like a big deal—well, it is,” Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive officer, wrote in a blog posted to the company’s website. Later in the same post, he wrote, “We’re pumped to have you on board. It’s time to move.”

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Both the Volvo-Uber and Uber-Otto announcements come two days after Ford laid out its own plan for introducing self-driving cars to American roads. On Tuesday, the company said it would deliver fully autonomous cars to U.S. roads in ride-hailing operations by 2021.

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