Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said that he wants his ride-hailing startup's fleet to be completely self-driving by 2030.
Today, the company took one big step toward meeting that goal.
Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Uber is going to start giving free rides to random customers in its prototype self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh later this month. The cars will have someone in the driver's seat, and Uber plans to have 100 specially prepared Volvo XC90 SUVs on the road by the end of the year.
Over the last couple years, Uber has built a giant driverless car research hub in Pittsburgh. The company last year entered into a joint research venture with Carnegie Mellon University to focus on autonomous driving, but ended up poaching 40 of their researchers instead.
There are a number of Silicon Valley heavyweights, in addition to Uber, that are putting serious resources into self-driving technology, including Tesla, Google and Apple. Uber's strategy is to develop its own autonomous driving technology, and then partner with individual carmakers (like Volvo) on creating what will eventually be fully self-driven cars.
To build out its fleet, Bloomberg reports that Uber recently paid $680 million to acquire the self-driving car startup Otto, which focuses on commercial trucking. One of Otto's co-founders, Anthony Lewandowski, built Google's first self-driving car and has been tapped to lead all of Uber's driverless car operations.
For Uber, driverless cars are one part of a grander plan to take on mass transit that has been slowly unfurled over the past couple of years.
The company last year unveiled a series of different bus-like and carpool pilot programs with names like "SmartRoutes," "UberCommute" and "UberHop," which are part of Kalanick's ambition to create a private alternative to existing public transit infrastructure. Kalanick expects that "prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel... will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car."
A spokesperson for Uber could not be immediately reached for comment.