Uber has put its first self-driving cars on the road, intensifying competition with companies such as Alphabet, Tesla and GM in the race to develop the best driverless car technology.
The move is a milestone for the disruptive taxi-booking company, which opened its driverless car research centre a year ago after poaching robotics researchers from Carnegie Mellon.
Uber’s driverless car, a hybrid Ford Fusion outfitted with special sensors, is being tested in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where its driverless research lab is based.
The test cars will still have a human sitting in the “driver’s seat” for now, and will collect mapping data during trips as well as information to improve the accuracy of the self-driving technology.
Earlier this week, Alphabet, a leader in driverless car research, launched a carpooling test programme through its mapping app Waze that matches commuters and passengers in the San Francisco Bay Area, potentially competing with Uber’s commute and carpooling services. Alphabet was an early investor in Uber, but the two companies have not collaborated on driverless research.
Unlike Lyft, Uber has not announced any formal partnerships with car companies for its driverless initiative, although the use of a Ford in tests suggests that the two are in talks. GM this year invested $500m in Lyft, Uber’s US rival, and the companies said that they were working together on driverless taxis.
Driverless research is also under way at Baidu, the Chinese search engine and mapping company, which plans to start testing driverless vehicles in the US.
However, regulation remains a barrier to widespread adoption of driverless car technologies, and most US states do not yet have laws governing the technology.
In Pittsburgh, Uber said that its tests had the support of local regulators. Mayor William Peduto said he was “excited” that Uber would be testing in the city.
Uber said it was “in the early days” of its self-driving efforts, adding that real-world testing was crucial for developing the technology.
“In the future we believe this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents,” Uber said in a statement.
“These goals are at the heart of Uber’s mission to make transportation as reliable as running water — everywhere and for everyone.”
Uber, which operates in 68 countries, has raised more than $10bn from investors including Goldman Sachs, TPG and Alphabet, making it the best-funded start-up in the world.
The company declined to reveal how much it had invested in its driverless research programme.