As the ongoing debate about the safety and benefits of driverless cars continues, at least one American city is about to experience this reality firsthand. According to the Associated Press, in a few weeks, Pittsburgh will begin using self-driving cars to carry passengers.
This decision may not move the sides of the argument forward, but it certainly ups the stakes and changes the dynamics. The AP says Uber plans to encourage customers to opt into a “test program” which will employ autonomous Ford Fusions that can be called by the smartphone app.
This signals a leap forward in the application of the technology. Other companies may be testing autonomous vehicles on public roads, but this initiative will be the first time the American public has access.
No, it’s not totally autonomous. Vehicles will also have human “backup” drivers that will be tasked with managing situations the cars cannot. The bonus for the riders? The drivers are “free” if they agree to opt in to the autonomous car program.
At present, there are no plans for Uber to use self-driving cars in any other markets, but that doesn’t mean there are no plans for eventual expansion. CEO Travis Kalanick, said this system should drive the cost of hailing a car down below actually owning a vehicle.
Could this move signal a sea change in the way Americans connect with automobiles. For generations, the automobile has been one of a handful of symbols of American freedom. Right up there with apple pie as a symbol of the red, white and blue. But, as habits and mindsets change, the whole idea of what it means to be an American, especially in this arena, could shift.
If Kalanick has his way, it will become so sooner rather than later. According to him, the development of self-driving cars is central to Uber’s plans for the future. He makes no bones about wanting to be number one in this industry, an innovator and segment leader now and in the future.
“This is not a side project for us. This is everything, all the marbles for Uber. We’ve got to be laser-focused on getting this to market…” Kalanick said.
A successful market test will certainly calm some of the fears and bring more people over to Uber’s side of the debate, but there is still a strong pushback both from segments who feel the tech isn’t ready as well as those who resent the compulsion to give up their ultimate symbol of freedom – their car. Kalanick and Uber will need to find a way to either win these people over, win enough of the market over to shift public opinion solidly to support of their initiative.
Chris Burch is a venture capitalist and founder of Burch Creative Capital.