More than two years ago - like most in the car business - Uber identified autonomous driving technology as the next monumental challenge which could provide a huge financial windfall for the company. By pocketing full fares rather than sharing them with the 1.5 million drivers they employ, the company had the potential to increase their $68 billion USD valuation.
Today, the company announced that they launched four autonomous Ford Fusion vehicles in Pittsburgh which are outfitted with 3D cameras, GPS, and a technology called "lidar" that uses lasers to assess the shape and distance of objects, mounted somewhat crudely to the vehicle's roof.
Since it's just a pilot program, two human riders/drivers sit in the front seats for occasions when the driverless car is not up to the task and a person needs to grasp the wheel while another keeps an eye on the computer software. A blue circle on the dash means the car is under manual control. A single green light with a check mark means the car is ready for autonomous mode. And when both the green light and a white light with an arrow are illuminated, it means that the autonomous mode is engaged.
In order to hail one of the driverless cars, the ride's origin and destination must be within the operating boundaries that Uber has set out for its robotic vehicles. Currently, the cars work in downtown Pittsburgh, across the Allegheny River in the North Shore neighborhood, and eastward past Carnegie Mellon University toward Shadyside.