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Uber trumps Google with Otto acquisition

Uber will put a retrofitted Volvo XC90 on Pittsburgh's streets. (Photo: Volvo)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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The company will also start an autonomous ride-hailing service in Pittsburgh in the coming weeks.

It could be a defining moment for driverless mobility: starting this month, Uber will allow customers in Pittsburgh to summon an autonomous vehicle with their smartphones. It is the first time a self-driving ride service will enter the market. The test fleet will consist of retrofitted Volvo XC90 SUVs, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek article. And the news doesn’t stop there: Uber is also within reach of closing a deal to acquire driverless truck startup Otto for a rumored USD 680 million.

This takeover could be considered a blow in the face of one of Uber’s heaviest competitors: Google. Anthony Levandowski, a co-founder of Google’s self-driving car project, left the company earlier this year to establish Otto, a company that develops kits to update conventional trucks with autonomous driving technology. “We were really excited about building something that could be launched early,” Levandowski said according to Bloomberg. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made no secret of the fact that his goal is to outdo Google: “If Uber wants to catch up to Google and be the leader in autonomy, we have to have the best minds.” This could even be seen as another setback for Google: CTO Chris Urmson recently exited the tech giant along with other high-ranking engineers.

Uber is now expected to start a service for long-haul trucking in the United States. It will also benefit from the Lidar systems that Otto has developed as well as the huge amount of traffic data the startup has collected. This can be used to quickly improve its mapping and navigation systems.

In contrast to Google, Uber does not intend to manufacture their own cars. Kalanick reportedly already has struck a deal with Mercedes – and now with Volvo. During the test phase in Pittsburgh, trips will be free for customers. Due to safety reasons, a professional driver will still sit behind the wheel to intervene if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot in the passenger’s seat will take notes on a laptop.

In the long run, Kalanick expects the cost of travel to be cheaper in a self-driving Uber than in a private car. It is Kalanick’s declared goal to replace human drivers with automation as soon as possible. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car—you’re paying for the other dude in the car”, he said in 2015.

Read the Bloomberg Businessweek article here.

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