Uber Leads the Way to Autonomous Driving

Evolution of Driving

Driving of the four-wheeled variety has only been around for just over two centuries (my, is it really that young?!). In that time, the world has seen various iterations on the method of propulsion, which is still being considered to this day. Even more, cars are increasingly being mechanized, slowly merging with computers, the internet, and AI, or artificial intelligence. While I dream of a time when traffic jams are a thing of the past, we still have a long way to go to achieve the ideal–autonomous vehicles that can intelligently navigate roads (especially if roads change), pickup cargo or passengers, and are also good for the environment. We are not there yet, but we’re working on it!

As we make our way between cities, and soon other countries, it’s clear that transportation services are evolving. Uber for its part is not an autonomous service, for it requires humans to be the intermediary between algorithm and pickup. Uber carpool for instance lets users specify a number of passengers, origin, and destination. Uber now offers a number of vehicles for commuting, other offerings like food delivery, and messenger services in various cities around the world. While the service varies depending on location and availability, it has taken off along with other ride sharing, car hailing, and economy sharing startups such as Lyft, et al. Uber has effectively disrupted the stale taxi and limousine market, trading high rates and inefficiencies to better accessibility and more affordability.

Safety of Passengers, Pedestrians, and Drivers

Who’s life is more valuable, the driver, the guy in the back seat, or the kids crossing the street? Oh no, computer conundrum! We still need to teach computers the answer to questions that we cannot answer ourselves, but there have been more than just law suits when ride sharing has been involved. With Lyft and Uber, there have been deaths, assaults, sexual assaults, kidnappings, hit and runs, and driver DUIs. There’s nothing new here, but there’s now more of a chance it could happen to you. 

Fear and Legislation

Many cities are struggling to make room, instituting bans, special rules, additional taxes, or downright making it illegal. Economy sharing companies face critical response from unions and lawmakers since there are no current rules or regulations for these new types of companies. Putting the keys so to speak in any normally licensed driver’s hands, everything from licensure, oversight, and security is either lacking or not defined within the current confines of cabby culture. Even law suits from disenfranchised workers have surfaced in an attempt to force Uber to condemn the loosely employed status of contract workers and give them more benefits and rights as full time employees. Whether these things are ethical or legal is a matter of opinion at the moment, but the technology and data gathered by these “experiments” is another thing entirely.

So How Is This Autonomy?

Glad you asked. A trove of data is collected by its navigation app, used by both driver and passenger. While it’s fairly seamless to the end users, the backend is doing quite a bit. The map displays supposed real-time locations of both passengers and drivers depending on your role. When matched with a passenger, the maps show only the respective location of pickup and the route of destination, updating the car or passenger markers in real-time. What’s cool about this as a user is having the concrete knowledge that a driver is en route and a course is plotted or that a passenger is nearby and fare will be paid. Since all of the drivers (and passengers) are equipped with these data collecting machines, they will know where traffic accumulates, how many people are requesting rides, and common routes or ones that are less congested. With carpool, the feature that allows you to receive cheaper rides if you don’t mind company with a fellow traveler, they use algorithms which are continually improved to determine the perfect match of driver and stranger passengers, plotting the route, and alerting all parties. The system will get smarter. Perhaps Google or Tesla will end up acquiring Uber (the loser gets Lyft). These small steps, in conjunction with the ongoing development and research of autonomous driving, will allow more efficient AI and truly autonomous driving systems, but only time will tell.