Transportation experts say the days of drivers owning and operating their own vehicles are numbered – and that the streets of the future will be roamed by autonomous, rentable fleets. A concrete step was made toward that vision last week, as Uber launched a self-driving car pilot program in Pittsburgh. The test vehicle, which is a modified Ford Focus, will use a combination of mapping data, sensors, laser scanners and a high-resolution camera to get around. While a human operator must be behind the wheel at all times, Uber’s testing is to determine whether self-driving cars can become a viable option for its fleets in efforts to reduce traffic accident fatalities, congestion, and costs.
“Real-world testing is critical to our efforts to develop self-driving technology,” the ride-share company states on its blog. “Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world. 1.3 million people die every year in car accidents — 94% of those accidents involve human error. In the future we believe this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents.”
A number of auto manufacturers are developing self-driving cars. Early iterations include semi-autonomous features such as automatic parking, and auto-pilot settings for long stretches of highway. The goal, however, is to eventually develop a vehicle that can drive without any human intervention whatsoever, raising questions as to who would be liable should a self-driving car be involved in an accident.
Swedish automaker Volvo made waves in April when President and Chief Executive Officer Håkan Samuelsson stated they would assume all liability for accidents that occur when their car is operating in autonomous mode. Whether other auto makers will follow suit with similar claims remains to be seen.
Uber has not addressed how any autonomous members of its fleet would be insured. There is currently a call in several Canadian municipalities for the ride-share company’s drivers to take out commercial policies, as well as adhere to similar regulations as the taxi industry.