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Starting today, San Francisco residents can hail a self-driving Uber

Self-driving cars could be as fundamentally transformative to the American way of life as, well, cars. But they’ve always felt like a pie-in-the-sky technology rather than a product that could be right around the proverbial corner. Today, they took a significant step closer to widespread introduction, courtesy of Uber and Volvo. It’s not the first time Uber has deployed self-driving cars, but bringing the technology to San Francisco, where Uber was founded, undoubtedly has particular meaning to the company.

While these are self-driving cars, they aren’t driverless cars. Unlike Google, whose prototype self-driving vehicles lacked both pedals and steering, each self-driving car from Uber will feature both a test engineer and a safety driver to gather data, prevent emergency situations, and monitor the vehicle’s overall performance. As is typical with Uber, the company is risking running afoul of California’s strict laws regarding self-driving vehicles. The California DMV has informed Uber that it should apply for certification that would allow it to drive on public roads and has awarded such certifications to 20 companies to date. Uber, in response, claims that its vehicles aren’t technically autonomous, since a driver is always present.

Unlike Apple and Google, both of which have reportedly trimmed their self-driving programs to focus on software rather than vehicle development, Uber signed a prominent partnership with Volvo to purchase 100 vehicles modified for autonomous driving. Volvo agreed to sell Uber 100 XC90 SUVs, which is what the company is using for this self-driving launch. The auto manufacturer is working on its own in-house self-driving technology, but Uber’s vehicles are using their own software, not Volvo’s.

The technology in the newer Volvos is more streamlined and better integrated than the self-driving Ford Focuses (Ford Foci?) that Uber launched in Pittsburgh a few months back, The Verge reports. There are just seven cameras, down from 22, and the radar sensors are installed behind the bumper rather than off the sides of the car. You can still clearly tell this isn’t a standard vehicle (the photo below is proof of that), but apart from the spinning lidar dish things don’t look too unusual. The lidar array provides a 360-degree laser scan of the environment in addition to the sensors mounted at various points on the vehicle.

Volvo Cars and Uber join forces to develop autonomous driving ca

The other major difference between the Pittsburgh launch earlier this year and this San Francisco debut is that you’ve got a much better chance of catching a ride. In Pittsburgh, Uber only made its self-driving cars available to a small group of people. If you’re in SF, you might get lucky just by using the standard Uber app. Uber will inform you if a self-driving vehicle has been sent to your location and you’ll have the option to request a human driver instead, at least for now.

That “at least for now,” is important, especially to anyone who actually thought Uber constituted a long-term employment opportunity. Self-driving vehicles could reinvent modern transportation by creating an on-demand network for conveyance. It’s even possible, in the long-term, that they’ll obviate the need to own a car (as opposed to owning one for fun). But there are going to be definite winners and losers to this technology, and once costs drop low enough it’s going to take a hefty whack out of the transportation business. It may not kill taxis or higher-tier black-car service outright, but it’s definitely going to put severe pressure on the market — and Uber has no reason to keep hiring drivers once its vehicles are capable enough to take their place. Trucking isn’t safe, either — not with trucks already demonstrating some short-haul autonomous capability.

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