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A Look At Uber's Ambitions For A Driverless Future


If you catch an Uber in Pittsburgh, there's a chance your driver may not actually drive. That's because driverless Ubers hit the streets in Pittsburgh as of Wednesday. To be clear, the ride-sharing service does have humans in the front seat to make sure everything goes smoothly. We wanted to find out more about the future of this technology and the risks, so we've called on Timothy Carone. He's a professor at the University of Notre Dame, and he wrote the book "Future Automation: Changes To Lives And To Businesses." and he's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

TIMOTHY CARONE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So people might have a picture in their mind about self-driving cars. Before we get into the details, can you just tell us a little bit about where the technology is now compared to what people might imagine?

CARONE: Well, the technology is at a - I'll call it a hyper cruise control, where cars can control their driving and their movement down basic, you know, either highways or streets with traffic lights and kind of the normal pedestrian traffic. So you think about kind of the normal traffic patterns you encounter, say, driving to work.

The cars are getting good enough to handle those situations. What they don't do is they're not capable of true autonomous operations. They cannot - you cannot get into a car today and tell it where to go and then sit back, fall asleep for three hours when it takes you to work. That kind of capability is not present.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, Alex Davies from wired.com rode in one of these test-run vehicles on Wednesday. We talked to him earlier, and he talked about, you know, what the guy in the front - or person in the front seat - actually does.


ALEX DAVIES: Throughout our ride, the engineer would take over maybe every three, four or five minutes. They're taking over in the parts where they're not completely confident in the car's ability to drive safely or to even drive intelligently at points.

MARTIN: Well, you know, taking over, I have to say, every three, four or five minutes - you're kind of doing a lot of driving there. That doesn't seem very driverless to me.

CARONE: Right. And I think this is a great way for people to see how far the driverless technology truly is. You know, for example, the Uber cars cannot change lanes, so that three to four minutes could potentially be changing lanes in various turns in difficult situations that, you know, we find simple, but the Uber technology isn't quite prepared to do so. You know, the cars aren't quite there yet, so having the driver in the car is absolutely key, I think, for the evolution of driverless cars to go to that next level.

MARTIN: So when do you think - and I - forgive me. I'm asking you to speculate now. When do you think this all comes to fruition? When will getting that driver's license cease to be a rite of passage?

CARONE: I would start to look in about five to eight years to start to see demonstrable changes in that. You know, just like people, you know, the millennials and the younger generation they no longer opt for land phone lines when they get an apartment for the first time. They have their cell phone. They don't need a landline anymore.

And that's what's going to start to show up are people who eventually, you know - when people come to that age, their parents are going to say, you know what? You got an app on your phone to get whatever car you need. Let's save on insurance and let's save on everything and you just - you can get the car you need when you need it. And I think we'll start to see that, say, five years out.

MARTIN: That's Timothy Carone. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. He's also the author of "Future Automation: Changes To Lives And To Businesses" which talks about the transition to autonomous systems like driverless cars. Thank you so much for joining us.

CARONE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.