Self-driving vehicles

Meet the newest self-driving Ubers in Pittsburgh

Changes are happening to the current fleet, too — like a move to one vehicle operator.

MJ Slaby

Updated, 5:25 p.m.

Imagine this: A self-driving Uber picks you up. There’s room for three friends, plus all of your luggage. There’s no human in the front, and you can use an iPad to play music, take a selfie or read FAQs.

That’s the vision Uber is moving toward with its upgraded fleet of Volvo XC90s, a new version of the SUV, and a move to one vehicle operator. Those changes aim “to improve the human experience [for] when it comes a day when there isn’t a human in the vehicle,” said Brian Zajac, Uber’s director of hardware engineering.

Uber marked the one-year anniversary of its pilot program allowing riders in self-driving cars Sept. 14. In a year, the company expanded the number of neighborhoods where self-driving Ubers pick up and drop off riders, upgraded from a fleet of Ford Fusions to the Volvos, and expanded the pilot to anyone using the Uber app. Today, the company provided a glimpse into its current projects and future plans at a press event.

Wickerham_Uber_TheIncline_09_20_2017_113
Jared Wickerham / For The Incline

Changes to current self-driving Volvos

1. One vehicle operator

As Uber prepares for a future where there are no vehicle operators in autonomous cars, it’s moving from two to one vehicle operator in some cars.

By the end of the year, some of the fleet will have just one Uber employee and that will continue to be implemented into 2018, Uber said. Those cars will be testing and mapping, but there’s a possibility that they could pick up passengers, too, by the end of 2017. (FYI: If you do get a self-driving Uber with just one vehicle operator, riders are not allowed to sit in the front seat just yet.)

Currently, state law requires a licensed driver behind the wheel, even if that person isn’t touching the wheel. So state law would have to change before there are any truly driverless cars on the roads.

2. A new iPad experience

At the start of the pilot program, Uber added iPads to show backseat riders what the self-driving car sees. But staffers learned that riders often misinterpreted the visual, and some even thought it was an infrared view, said Sean Chin, a product designer for the Self-Driving Uber Human Experience. So designers changed the view to make it simpler and easier to understand.

screens on screens on screens

Old version

Jared Wickerham / For The Incline
Wickerham_Uber_TheIncline_09_20_2017_542

New version

Jared Wickerham / for The Incline

Now, objects that move or could be an obstacle (other cars, pedestrians, etc.) are orange, while things that don’t move like buildings are in blue. There’s also a night mode color palette, so it’s less bright for riders in the dark. The team is also working on and testing ways to make the backseat iPad more personalized from using it to select music, search the internet or take a selfie, Chin said.

Wickerham_Uber_TheIncline_09_20_2017_79
Jared Wickerham / for The Incline

The team also changed the view on the iPad that’s used by vehicle operators in the front, said Dennis Zhao, Product Manager for the Self-Driving Uber Human Experience.

Riders love to ask questions about what’s happening up front, so changes to that iPad make it more useful to understand, such as when the car is in self-driving mode, he said.

Wickerham_Uber_TheIncline_09_20_2017_506
Jared Wickerham / for The Incline

The newest Volvo XC90s

A year ago, Uber billed the self-driving Volvos as the laptop to the desktop that was the Ford Fusion model. Now, Uber plans to roll out a new version of the Volvo XC90, which will be on the roads in the coming months. Though the version on display today was white, Uber has yet to announce the branding and color of the new XC90s that will hit the roads, a spokesman said. Here are the changes.

  • Easier to make. The new version is designed for scale, said Zajac, who leads hardware for cars and trucks. Unlike the current version, the new one will have fewer pieces in the sensor/camera set on top making it easier to mass produce.
  • Better vision. The cameras will have better resolution, meaning the car has a longer range of vision and can drive faster, he said.
Uber offices in the Strip District neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Wick Photography)
Jared Wickerham / For The Incline
  • Adapting to weather and more. Zajac said changes have been made so the car’s sensors and cameras can work better in heavy rain and with bug splatter on the car.
  • More trunk space. In the current Volvos, hardware takes up most of the truck, but revisions to improve efficiency and reduce power consumption mean the trunk is now free for rider luggage, Zajac said.