Uber Debuts its New Self-Driving Volvo XC90 SUVs, Designed to Operate Without a Safety Driver

Uber Debuts its New Self-Driving Volvo XC90 SUVs, Designed to Operate Without a Safety Driver

Author: Eric Walz   

After a fatal accident involving a self-driving Uber vehicle in Arizona last year, the ride-hailing company halted its autonomous vehicle development. After months of comprehensive safety reviews, the company has been slowly getting the program back up and running.

Today, Uber unveiled its next-generation self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs during day 2 of the "Uber Elevate" summit in Washington DC. Eventually, Uber plans to deploy thousands of the driverless Volvo's as part of its ride-hailing network, lessening its reliance on human drivers as it looks to reach profitability as a public traded company.

Uber said the Volvo SUV "self-driving system will one day allow for safe, reliable autonomous ridesharing without the need" for a safety driver. Uber aims to deploy self-driving cars without safety drivers in limited areas in the next few years.

Uber said the new production XC90 luxury SUVs will be built by Volvo Cars in Sweden. Unlike General Motors vision of a driverless car without a steering wheel or pedals, the Volvo XC90's will come with human controls. However, Uber said the factory installed steering and braking systems have been specially modified so they can be operated by a computer.

Uber said is not yet ready to deploy vehicles without human controls.

The new vehicles also has several back-up systems for both steering and braking as well as battery back-up power and new cybersecurity systems to prevent hacking. The Volvo SUVs will also be equipped with lidar, radar, cameras and other senors necessary for self-driving.

Uber said the new vehicles, known by the internal code number "519G" have been under development for several years now. Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group said the SUVs are safer, more reliable and will "soon" replace the older vehicles in Uber's fleet.

"This is about going to production," said Meyhofer at an Uber conference in Washington Tuesday.

"We're still in a real hybrid state," Meyhofer added. "We have to get there and we're not going to get to thousands of cars in a city overnight. It's going to be a slower introduction."

Uber began using the self-driving Volvo XC90's in 2016.

One drawback is that the luxury SUVs do not have the large, panoramic glass sunroof offered in the consumer version of the XC90. Because of the added sensors on the roof of the vehicle, Uber needed a solid roof. In addition, the vehicles are equipped with doors that close automatically to prevent an unsafe departure or to close the door after a passenger exits and forgets to close the door.

Among the unique features Uber is adding to the Volvo XC90s is an interior fish-eye camera that will be used to scan for lost items, such as a left behind cell phone in the back seat, Uber said.

Uber is Cautiously Resuming its Self-Driving Testing

Uber is cautiously restarting it autonomous vehicle testing after the incident in Tempe, Arizona in March of 2018, in which an Uber operating in "autonomous mode" fatally struck a pedestrian without braking. The incident raised pubic awareness about the safety of Uber's software and the entire nascent self-driving car industry in general.

Authorities suspended Uber's ability to test its self-driving cars in Arizona, which was Uber's largest test location in the U.S., after the fatal accident. Days later, Uber voluntarily shut down it autonomous testing in Pittsburgh, where Uber's ATG office is located.

Although Uber paid an undisclosed sum to the family of the woman killed in Arizona, In March 2019, prosecutors in Arizona determined that Uber was not criminally liable and would not pursue charges.

Uber ended its testing in Arizona but plans to eventually resume testing in Toronto and San Francisco, Meyhofer said.

Meyhofer added that Uber wants to be in "the good graces of public trust and regulatory trust" before making the business decision to deploy self-driving vehicles once again.

Volvo and Uber said in 2017 that the rideshare company planned to buy up to 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo from 2019 to 2021 using the self-driving system developed by Uber's Advanced Technologies Group.

Since 2016, Uber purchased about 250 Volvo XC90 SUVs and retrofitted them for self-driving use. The vehicles were deployed in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Arizona, where the fatal accident occurred.

An Uber spokeswoman said to Reuters on Tuesday that the company plans "to work with Volvo on tens of thousands of vehicles in the future."

Uber is looking for a path toward profitability after its IPO last month, one of the biggest in recent years. One way Uber plans to do this is by eventually replacing human drivers with self-driving vehicles.

The ride-hailing company sold 180 million shares for $45 each raising over $8 billion in its IPO, giving Uber a market value of almost $74 billion.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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