Uber Partners With Volvo to Put Self-Driving SUVs on U.S. Roads by Year-End

Ride-Hailing Service Will Extensively Engineer XC90s at Pittsburgh Tech Center

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Volvo Cars and Uber join forces to develop autonomous driving cars
Volvo Cars and Uber join forces to develop autonomous driving cars Credit: Volvo

A deal between Uber and Volvo could eventually remove the driver from the popular ride-hailing service's vehicles.

San Francisco-based Uber and Sweden's Volvo Cars today announced that they have formed a joint venture that will put a fleet of 100 self-driving XC90 plug-in hybrid SUVs on the road in Pittsburgh in less than four months.

Volvo, in a statement, said the combined investment for the project is $300 million.

"Volvo will use the same base vehicle for the next stage of its own autonomous car strategy, which will involve fully autonomous driving," Volvo said.

Uber said it is buying the XC90 SUVs from Volvo and is adding the self-driving hardware and software that it developed in its Pittsburgh tech center, opened just 20 months ago. Volvo will provide technical support as needed.

Uber will extensively re-engineer the XC90s, adding components such as lidar, radar, additional cameras and sensors, as well as computers and software. The modifications will enable the seven-seat SUV to drive itself, said Sherif Marakby, Uber's VP-global vehicle programs.

For the time being, the Pittsburgh fleet will be supervised by humans in the driver's seat, Bloomberg reported.

Mr. Marakby joined Uber in April after a 25-year career at Ford Motor Co. where he held numerous senior engineering management posts. In his last job at Ford, Mr. Marakby was the company's director of global electronics and engineering, a position where he was responsible for electrical components on all Ford vehicles globally, including infotainment, driver assist and connectivity.

Mr. Marakby manages a team of Uber engineers who are integrating the company's hardware and software into the XC90. Mr. Marakby chose the XC90, he said, after traveling the world evaluating vehicles and speaking to automakers. Mr. Marakby declined to say how many engineers the company has at its Pittsburgh tech center.

"The foundation of the collaboration is Volvo's strength in safety and vehicle development, and Uber's strength and commitment to autonomy and autonomous technology," he said. "A significant part of that is the software. All of that is developed in house."

Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson, in the statement, said the project demonstrates the company's commitment to develop active safety and autonomous drive technology.

"We are very proud to be the partner of choice for Uber, one of the world's leading technology companies," the statement said. "This alliance places Volvo at the heart of the current technological revolution in the automotive industry."

Some key details of the project are not yet clear.

For instance, Uber won't say yet if a ride in an autonomous XC90 will cost more than a ride in a non-autonomous Uber vehicle. The company also won't say if it has technology that enables autonomous vehicles to work in snow and wet weather, situations when cameras and sensors have a difficult time detecting lane markings, traffic signs and other vehicles.

It also wasn't immediately clear whether any regulatory or legal hurdles remain in approving the company's plans.

"The cars in Pittsburgh comply with vehicle safety and equipment laws and we are committed to testing this technology safely," an Uber spokesperson said in an email. "We've informed local officials and law enforcement about our testing in Pittsburgh, and our work would not be possible without the support we've received from the city's leaders."

Mr. Marakby says the deal with Volvo doesn't mean that it won't work with other automakers. Uber, he said, plans to offer autonomous vehicles in other cities, but he would not elaborate on plans to expand beyond Pittsburgh.

"We believe demand will be very high among people open to new technology," he said. "Part of the excitement is the technology, and we can get into full autonomy with ride-sharing. Our strong belief is that there will be a good portion of the population who will be very open to ride sharing in an autonomous vehicle."

Mr. Marakby said the eventual goal is to create a fleet of autonomous vehicles that do not require a human in the driver's seat. "Ultimately, the vision is for full driverless vehicles."

The four-month timeframe to get autonomous vehicles on the road in Pittsburgh is extremely ambitious by auto industry standards. But Mr. Marakby said the XC90's electrical architecture is well-suited to handle the demands of autonomous driving and that engineers at the Uber tech center are extremely efficient.

Speaking of the tech center, Mr. Marakby said: "It's accomplished in 18 months what many companies can't accomplish in many years."

-- Richard Truett is a reporter at Automotive News. Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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