SAN FRANCISCO -- Uber has expanded its self-driving pilot program to San Francisco, the company said at a press event on Tuesday.
The program -- which was first introduced in Pittsburgh in September -- will launch in San Francisco with a handful of Volvo XC90 SUVs and Ford Focus sedans equipped with autonomous driving systems. The vehicles are supervised by two engineers and will be part of the pool of cars available to pick up Uber customers. If a rider is matched with a self-driving vehicle, they have the option to decline the ride and wait for a human driver.
California has strict regulations regarding the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads -- banning unsupervised testing and the operation of self-driving cars for a commercial ride-hailing fleet. However, since Uber requires its engineers to keep their hands on the wheel of the vehicle in both manual and self-driving modes, the cars are not fully autonomous, said an Uber spokesperson, operating more like a driver assist system similar to Tesla Motor’s Autopilot software.
Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, said the last three months of testing in Pittsburgh have made the company’s software smarter and better able to handle inclement weather.
“We’re taking the experience and the lessons we learned in Pittsburgh and bringing them to San Francisco,” Levandowski said.
The company said it decided on San Francisco as its second location because of the traffic density challenges it poses for its autonomous technology -- in addition to the weather and road conditions it has been experiencing in Pittsburgh.
The program also expands Uber’s $300 million partnership with Volvo Cars.
The agreement allows Uber to retrofit XC90 SUVs with its self-driving technology and gives the technology company access to 50 Volvo engineers as it further develops its software. Volvo is working on its own autonomous systems with Autoliv Inc. and is launching its Drive Me autonomous fleet in Sweden next year. Uber has said its partnership with Volvo is not exclusive.
The San Francisco pilot is the debut of a more refined version of Uber’s autonomous system, cutting down on the number of sensors and exterior hardware.
How it works
Uber demonstrated the technology for Automotive News in a three mile route in one of its XC90 SUVs around the SoMa district of San Francisco on Tuesday.
Though the car acted conservatively along the route -- stopping in intersections when pedestrians approached crosswalks and waiting until crossings were completely clear of people before moving again -- it was able to handle heavy traffic on its own in most situations.
An Uber engineer had to take manual control of the vehicle three times during the trial, twice when vehicles came too close to its lane and it would not enter a bike lane to avoid them, and once when it was stuck behind a delivery truck. The engineer in the passenger seat, known as the vehicle’s co-pilot, can initiate a lane change for the vehicle, but it requires a few seconds of forewarning.