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Uber and Google Battle for Footing in the Race to a Driverless Car

After announcing a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in February, Uber has already started testing driverless car prototypes in Pittsburg. Carnegie Mellon has long been hailed as one of the top robotic engineering research establishments.

Taking that into consideration, Uber hired numerous award-winning researchers from the University in addition to other developers for this joint program. A Ford Focus was spotted on the streets of Pittsburgh this week sporting LiDAR sensors and an Uber Advanced Technologies Center badge.

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors have been used for mapping and navigation, but are now also being utilized for autonomous driving. The system can be mounted on the top of any car, and uses infrared lasers to analyze a car’s surroundings. It is used in combination with radar, GPS and computer vision technologies to ensure pinpoint location accuracy and instantaneous reactions to traffic incidents.

Having purchased the abandoned Restaurant Depot facility in Pittsburg’s Strip District, Uber has started to heavily invest in this project. Autonomous cars appear to be the future of the automotive industry. Uber has a steep hill to climb however, as Google has been testing autonomous cars since before the company’s launch date in 2010.

Google has already committed extensive resources toward developing the first autonomous car including prototypes in California and Nevada. The company has publicized this research broadly. The first and perhaps most notable PR move was a video of Steve Mahan, a legally blind older man, who was able to use a self-driving car to do errands around town.

Google has been testing self-driving prototypes for a couple of years now. With a fleet of 23 Lexus SUV’s, Google has logged more than 1 million miles of driverless car testing, and to this point has reported 11 minor accidents. According to Google, none of the 11 accidents were the responsibility of the system, rather the error of other drivers on the road.

Uber has a clear incentive to develop such technology further. Currently, the main cost of taking an Uber ride is the driver. This past Tuesday, Barclays’ Brian Johnson released a comprehensive study concerning the how much money the company could save if the need for a driver became obsolete.

“By removing the driver from the equation (the largest cost in a taxi ride), the average cost per mile to the consumer could be 44 cents for a private ride in a standard sedan and 8 cents for a shared ride in a two-seater.”

For an UberX customers currently pay $3 to $3.50 per mile. Such a drastic cost-cutting measure would revolutionize the transportation industry. With more than 160,000 currently employed by Uber, this technology will also be detrimental for the low wage work force, a population coming under increasing threat from a globalized labor force and hyper-efficient technological developments.

Johnson projected the autonomous car market to grow into a $42 billion industry in the next 10 years. While this may be on the high side depending on autonomous car R&D, this market is clearly the place to be for both technology companies and car manufacturers.

Driverless cars, once considered a futuristic fantasy, are becoming a question of when rather than if. Johnson predicts that 2025 will be a tipping point, further projecting that autonomous cars could compose a quarter of the entire automotive industry by 2035.

Image via PBS

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