Yes, you heard right! Uber passengers in Pittsburgh will be able to summon rides in self-driving cars with the touch of a smartphone button in the next several weeks.
The high-tech ride-hailing company said Thursday that an unspecified number of autonomous Ford Fusions with human backup drivers will pick up passengers just like normal Uber vehicles.
Riders will be able to opt in if they want a self-driving car, and rides will be free to those willing to do it, spokesman Matt Kallman said.
Uber, which has a self-driving research lab in Pittsburgh, has no immediate plans to deploy self-driving cars beyond the Pittsburgh experiment. But its CEO, Travis Kalanick, has said the ride-sharing company's future — indeed, the future of all transportation — is driverless.
"When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away," Kalanick said at the Code Conference in 2014, shortly after Google unveiled its self-driving car prototype.
The announcement was one of three made by Uber that accelerate the company's quest to provide autonomous taxis to the public worldwide. It's also the latest tie-up between Silicon Valley, ride-hailing firms and major automakers.
The San Francisco company announced a $300 million deal for Volvo to provide SUVs to Uber for autonomous vehicle research. Eventually the Volvo SUVs will be part of the self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh. Volvo will develop base vehicles for research and both companies will develop autonomous vehicles on their own.
Uber also announced that it is acquiring a self-driving startup called Otto that has developed technology allowing big rigs to drive themselves.
With the acquisition of Otto, Uber gets a fast infusion of self-driving expertise, including Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, one of the founding fathers of autonomous technology.
Self-driving cars are not yet ready for the masses. Hurdles include software that is not yet good enough for public rollout, safety concerns raised by state and federal regulators, and uncertainty over society's readiness to trust robot drivers.
But the race is on. Large tech and auto companies suggest they could start selling self-driving cars within three to five years.