For a long time, the phrase 'driverless cars' has been something of a misnomer. With the technology still being developed, safety concerns have necessitated at least one, and sometimes two, human monitors inside of autonomous vehicles. These monitors check the status of a vehicle and are ready to take over control should it become necessary. Of course, 'self-driving cars with fully alert engineer attendants' doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
Author: Sam Chase, The Connected Car
But the day of truly 'driverless' cars is approaching. Uber, which has been a leader in the development of autonomous ride-hailing fleets, recently claimed that it was getting close to launching autonomous vehicles that could operate without a human backup. Eric Meyhofer, Head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group that oversees self-driving cars, told the Associated Press that the company would put the monitor-free cars on roads once it felt it was completely safe to do so.
"Once we can check that box, which we call passing the robot driver's license test, that's when we can remove the vehicle operator," Meyhofer said. "We're going aggressively too."
Uber does seem to have made significant strides recently. It was only in October that Uber said it would remove a passenger's seat operator from its self-driving vehicles, leaving only one human operator in the driver's seat. The move was part of the relaunch of Uber's autonomous ride-hailing service in Pittsburgh, which originally began in 2016.
As of now, only one company has officially announced that it will put operator-free AVs on the road: Waymo. In November, the company divulged that it had already launched truly driverless cars around Phoenix, where it does much of its testing. It also released plans to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service in that very area in 2018.
Uber, of course, is currently embroiled in a lawsuit filed by Waymo, alleging that former Waymo executive Anthony Levandowski stole thousands of proprietary files from the Google spin-off and brought them to Uber, where he went to work soon after. Late last year, a letter emerged in the case that described unethical work practices at Uber, including the use of 'stolen Waymo trade secrets'. While the case figures to drag on for far longer than anyone would like it to, it has already contributed to a significant decline in Uber's reputation.
It's unclear whether deploying a fully driverless fleet will improve that reputation. But big technology breakthroughs in the autonomous vehicle space are tough to ignore. If Uber can show that is at least keeping pace with Waymo in the race to create truly autonomous vehicles, it will go a long way to helping the company reclaim its status.