How Ambitious Is Uber’s Promise Of Robo-Taxis By 2020?

How Ambitious Is Uber’s Promise Of Robo-Taxis By 2020?

Uber, an American tech company which has made waves by letting average people act like taxi drivers, is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible once more. This time the company says it wants to deploy robo-taxis in different parts of the United States by 2020.

Uber wants robo-taxis serving the public by 2020

Naturally, plenty of critics and doubters have lined up to say such a service can’t be offered so soon. Are they right? There are others who believe Uber can make it happen, or that someone else will, transforming how we get around.

Uber Taxi Service Now

Right now, Uber is offering a self-driving taxi service in the greater metropolitan Phoenix area. These cars aren’t available to the general public, but instead are limited to people who used Uber’s self-driving cars in the past. They have some experience with the tech and so conceivably are being mined for informed and useful feedback on how the service works and doesn’t.

These Uber vehicles also aren’t driving around Phoenix roads without a driver. A person sits behind the wheel, monitoring what the computer is doing. They are ready to take over at any moment, so this isn’t exactly a robot doing everything without any human intervention.

Technological Limits

You might be catching onto a fact: robot cars are something we already have. It’s a loose term, so it might not mean what you or many other people think it does. That’s key to Uber’s plan to launch a robo-taxi service by 2020.

Technolgy limits could make Uber’s service different than you expect

The Society of Automotive Engineers has created six levels of autonomous driving technology. Since the term “robo-taxi” isn’t standardized, technically any taxi car that lands on this scale at Level 3 or higher could easily be called such a thing.

First, though, a description of each SAE autonomous driving level.

Level 0

This is a level you no doubt have experience with, because it describes a car with no autonomous driving capabilities. The human driver controls everything manually.

Level 1

The lowest level of autonomous driving, the car can perform one aspect of self-driving assistance for the driver. This can be something like adaptive cruise control, lane-centering, or automatic braking.

Level 2

This level is similar to the previous one, but the car can control steering and its speed. While the car certainly can appear to be driving itself for fairly long stretches, the human driver has to be paying close attention to what’s going on. Tesla’s Autopilot is a prime example of Level 2 autonomy.

Level 3

A car using Level 3 autonomous driving capabilities can steer and control its speed, plus react appropriately to their immediate environment. They can decide when it’s necessary to pass a slow vehicle on the highway, executing the lane changes without human intervention. The human driver still needs to be paying close attention to what the system is doing and be ready to take over in an instant. After all, the system might fail to drive safely or the car can’t properly navigate a situation.

Level 4

This level of autonomous drive capabilities makes it possible for humans to watch a movie, read a book, or even take a nap while the car drives on roads. Level 4 cars can take appropriate action if the system fails or they can’t negotiate a certain situation. They can pull off the road and park themselves safely, waiting for the human to take over and drive the car through the challenging area. Humans can pay attention to what the car is doing and manually override the system at any time.

Level 5

This is what most people think of when you talk about self-driving cars. Humans don’t need to do anything because the car can handle any situation on any road, including inclement weather and even off-road trails. There might not be a steering wheel or other controls in these cars because they would be unnecessary.

What Level Will Uber Use?

It’s likely that Uber is looking to use cars with Level 3 autonomy for its robo-taxi service. That’s what the company is already offering in Arizona on a limited basis, which is most assuredly a test for a service offered to the general public.

That means if you hail an Uber robot-taxi, fully expect a human driver to be sitting behind the steering wheel. They might not be doing much, but that human will be there to ensure the system works correctly. It’s a measure which keeps anyone riding in the taxi as well as everyone else on the road safe.

No doubt, plenty of people who want to use Uber’s robo-taxis will be disappointed to find they’re not riding alone in the car. While that certainly would be cool, it’s not technologically possible, at least for now.

That’s right: Level 4 autonomy and especially Level 5 are just theoretical at this point. We don’t have the technology to pull either off, at least not yet. One problem is that more advanced sensors are necessary so cars can “see” as well or better than humans in all kinds of conditions. Another is the fact that our mapping capabilities are still wanting. After all, how many times has your navigation tried to take you on a pathway that didn’t really exist? Then there is perhaps the biggest sticking point: advanced artificial intelligence. Essentially, we would need to develop AI that can reason quickly like humans, perform value judgements and exercise a degree of wisdom. Is that even possible? People will debate that for years, but the truth is we’re not entirely sure.

Liability Issues

A question plenty of people have an nobody seems to have definitive answers is how Uber will handle the liability of sending fully-autonomous robo-taxis out into the world. It’s a key issue that has to be addressed, because legal problems could suddenly halt such a service.

Just who is at fault if a robo-taxi hits a pedestrian who is crossing a dark street at night?

Uber has some experience with such a scenario since one of its self-driving Volvo SUVs hit and killed a pedestrian crossing a dark street in Tempe, Arizona back in 2017. The incident meant the state of Arizona showed Uber the door almost immediately, shutting down the company’s experimental program in the area indefinitely.

It’s not impossible to figure this legal issue out, but Uber needs to weigh the possible consequences before it jumps into the market. After all, one slip up can cost it everything, which has already happened before.

Government Red Tape

Another huge obstacle standing in the way of Uber’s plan is government red tape or regulations. After all, you can’t just start offering such a service without getting approval from the authorities in the municipalities first.

There is a deep fear of this misunderstood technology. Part of that comes from people legitimately concerned that a self-driving car will run over pedestrians, hit other cars, and continue on its way spreading carnage in its path. While such a scenario might be something out of a Hollywood film, people will use their political power to make sure it doesn’t happen where they live.

Politicians must answer to the people who elect them, and so if they have enough constituents who don’t want to have a robo-taxi service in their area, it’s not going to be approved.

Beofre you can hail a robo-taxi the local government must approve

In other areas, robo-taxis might be viewed as cool by the public in general, but Uber will still have to dance through some red tape. There could be different tests, certifications, and other formalities to go through. Company leaders might need to meet with politicians, safety advocates, and influential members of the community to explain exactly how the service would work. While that might just seem like a way to block progress, it also helps guard the community against unchecked power. After all, a car is large and surprisingly deadly, so putting that kind of capability into the control of unproven technology understandably makes people uneasy.

Then there’s the issue of robo-taxis displacing taxi drivers as well as those who drive for rideshare services like Uber. Those people aren’t going to like such a thing coming into the area where they live and work because it’s a direct threat to their livelihood. If the have powerful connections, that alone could make it difficult if not impossible for Uber to get the service running in some cities.

Tesla Throws Down

Uber has some stiff competition coming as California automaker Tesla gears up to launch its own fleet of robotic taxis. CEO Elon Musk used a recent investor event to explain what the future service might look like, then he took to Twitter afterward to spread the information further.

Essentially, the plan is to leverage the self-driving capabilities included in newer Teslas. Owners would be able to let their car roam while they’re at work or otherwise preoccupied, earning some side cash for them by picking up riders who hail it through a smartphone app. It’s an interesting idea that understandably got people talking immediately.

Musk says the Tesla robot taxi network might be up and running by 2020. That’s right around the corner, so it’s understandable that critics questioned if the plan is even remotely feasible. The Tesla CEO says modern Teslas have all the hardware to perform this function, with only the right software lacking. The company is apparently working on a solution, which would then be pushed out to Teslas through over-the-air updates. According to Musk’s estimates, about one million Teslas will be in consumers’ hands with this kind of capability in 2020. That’s a lot of cars which could be ready to provide rides, even if a good chunk of Tesla owners don’t want to participate in the new service.

In some areas there might not be enough Tesla owners willing to share their car. Tesla has a plan to deploy dedicated robo-taxis to make up for that fact.

Just like with Uber, Tesla would need to get regulatory approval from the different municipalities and counties where it wishes to offer this service. That could prove to be tricky, considering there are still plenty of people who view self-driving cars with suspicion.

Because Tesla has the plan of letting owners set their own cars free, there are additional liability questions. The cars aren’t owned by the automaker, so it’s possible the owners could be held responsible for a crash involving injuries or fatalities. At the same time, Tesla created the tech and endorsed it for use on public roads, so it could hold some or all liability. It’s a problem for attorneys and judges to work out, but one which could absolutely affect whether or not these robo-taxis will be feasible at all.

Even more importantly, critics doubt Musk can make good on the aggressive timeline he’s promising. It’s the same story as Uber: the tech isn’t advanced enough to support a truly self-driving car, especially one that could be roaming streets without anyone inside.

Conclusion

While it was certainly exciting to hear about Uber’s plan to deploy robo-taxis by 2020, the actual rollout of this plan probably won’t be anything like what the general public pictured. For starters, human drivers will be behind the wheel, even if they’re not actively turning the steering wheel or doing much else for most of the ride. This is because of technological limits for autonomous systems at the moment, which hopefully will be overcome before too long.

There’s also the challenge of governments blocking the service in different areas. That means while someone in one city might be able to hail a robo-taxi for a ride, they might not be able to take it to a destination in a neighboring city. That limits the usefulness of such a service, but sometimes progress can only come about in waves or grades.

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