Uber has gained quite the reputation as the everyman's taxi service. Not only are Uber fares significantly cheaper than standard cab fares, but literally anyone with a vehicle can register as a vendor. This gig-based arrangement has worked great for both customers and providers. However, it seems Uber's top brass would rather get rid of the middlemen and go straight to the consumer along with even more affordable rates than ever before.
That's why Uber recently announced its plunge into developing self-driving vehicles. The San Francisco-based travel company purchased a research facility in Pittsburgh for building self-driving cars, which could someday replace everyday people as the key providers of Uber's services. Of course, Uber isn't the reigning leader in driverless vehicle technology - that would be Google, which invested $258 million in Uber's establishment. Google built a prototype driverless car last year (it looked like a more futuristic Smart car), and that prototype was said to be completely successful in navigating with the use of cameras and sensors (to comply with California law, the prototype included controls for a human driver in the event of an emergency).
Industry analysts have long assumed that Google would partner with Uber once it fully developed its self-driving car technology. But what will happen now that Uber is seeking technological independence? Bloomberg has already reported that Google may attempt to start its own Uber-like taxi service - a claim that Google has neither confirmed nor denied. But the gig-based taxi landscape could shift dramatically if self-driving vehicles are accompanied by another major service provider.
Uber's research effort will be spearheaded by experts hired from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute. Carnegie Mellon has been called to help with several high-profile robotics projects including the famous Mars Rover mission. At the new Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, Uber is expected to develop the infrastructure, technology, and vehicles needed to move its taxi fleet into a new era of service. And none of this is exactly surprising, seeing as how Uber CEO Travis Kalanick insisted back in spring 2014 that he'd prefer replacing human drivers with self-driving vehicles.
Of course, context is everything, and Kalanick's comments came at a time when drivers were lobbying for better pay to cover residual costs of professional driving. Still, self-driving cars will clearly make an impact on the national taxi economy. It's a matter of when - not if. The biggest question is which company will get there first.