Interviews
11 Oct 18

“The promise of self-driving is core to Uber’s mission”

Last month Uber announced it is opening an engineering tech hub in Toronto (Canada), and expanding its self-driving vehicle centre in the city. Andrew Salzberg, Uber's Head of Transportation Policy and Research, tells us more about Uber’s vision and role in the future mobility market. 

What would the development of an autonomous fleet mean for the company? What are the biggest challenges before the technology is commercially ready?

Andrew Salzberg: “The promise of self-driving is core to Uber’s mission. While we’re fully aware it won’t happen overnight, we believe shared and electric self-driving technology will play a crucial part in the future of transportation, supporting - alongside public transport, cycling and other mobility services, the shift towards less congested, less polluted, and more affordable and accessible mobility for everyone.

To no lesser degree, self-driving cars will also make driving safer. Cars will always play some kind of role in mobility, although we hope to an extent where they don’t clog our streets like they do today. Computers can perceive better, calculate faster, and react earlier, and with 1.3 million road deaths happening globally every year, the kind of impact such a technology could have on our cities is obvious. 

That being said, developing such a technology is no easy task, which is why we’ve one of the strongest self-driving engineering groups in the world working on making this a reality. There’s still some big challenges to solve, which is why we have highly trained mission specialists in the front seats while the vehicle is in operation.” 

Which other kind of technologies will be developed in the engineering hub as well? 

“Our new Canadian engineering hub will be primarily focused on building, operating, and continuously updating the vast infrastructure and backend systems that power Uber’s services. They will be tasked with ensuring our platform reliability and efficiency so that we can continue to scale and offer more functionality to users. 

This is a key strategic focus area for our engineering team. With a more reliable and extensible mobile business platform, we'll have the building blocks to better and more effectively deploy new product lines. This means, for example, that we can better and more rapidly deploy new modes of transportation via the Uber app, like Jump Bikes and e-scooters or partnerships with public transit.” 

Would these technologies be used for other Uber-services as well, such as in UberEats, and UberFreight? 

“It’s too early to say exactly how the work being done in the Toronto engineering office will be leveraged across other Uber products. We have a number of big bets on our roadmap that create unique challenges and opportunities for engineers interested in helping to build the future of their cities.”

Does the acquisition of JUMP mean that Uber is kind of becoming a MaaS company, rather than an exclusive ride-hailing company?

“For users what it ultimately comes down to is the ability to have easy access to a wide range of mobility services allowing them to fit mobility around their needs and lifestyles, without the need to get around in a private car. 

We want to be an app that allows our riders to get from A to B in ways that fit their needs best, no matter what mode of transportation that involves. So, if you need to get from A to B, you’ll soon be able to tap our app and see a whole range of choices. We’re already integrating new mobility options into our app, like pedal assist electric bikes from JUMP, and we’re seeing exciting results. Soon, we’ll be adding electric scooters, and ultimately transit, in the Uber app. We think all of these modes working together are the best way to build a real alternative to owning and operating your own personal car.”

Ride-hailers often are criticised to add to traffic congestion. Nevertheless, Uber created it shared ride-hailing services as well. What is the success of it so far, and how does the company encourage people to use the service?

“At its root, congestion is caused by an overreliance on and inefficient use of personal cars to get around cities. Today personal cars in most European cities represent over 80% of passenger traffic and most of these trips are done alone. Next time you stop at a red light, look at the cars to your right or left. The chances are they’ll have just one person in them: the driver. When you drive alone, you’re in good company. 

Untangling today’s mobility from personal car ownership will be crucial to offering an alternative to this picture. Along with experts on this subject, we believe that the future of urban transportation is going to be shared across a range of modes - centred around public transport, and complemented by cycling, bike-sharing, on-demand services like Uber, taxis as well as other new digital mobility solutions. 

UberPOOL plays an equally important role in solving congestion issues. At Uber, we want to use technology to make carpooling affordable and reliable for riders, and effortless for drivers. It’s why nearly 4 years ago, we launched our first shared ride product - POOL - which makes it easy for people headed in the same direction at the same time to share the journey. Since then, over one billion POOL rides have been taken. In 2017, if Uber riders had driven alone instead of sharing their rides, we estimate that over 230 million more miles would have been travelled — consuming over 4.6 million gallons of gas and emitting 41,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide.”

Does Uber encourage its drivers to make sustainable choices?

“Absolutely. As part of our vision to facilitate reliable transportation around the world and to make our cities more efficient and less reliant on personal car ownership, we’re working hard to significantly increase electric vehicles (EV) adoption. This is why we’ve launched the EV Champions Initiative, a pilot programme for driver-partners to deliver at least 5 million EV rides over the next year. The initiative plans to address some of the key concerns for drivers around EV adoption by providing access to EV education and resources, in-app features built for EV drivers to help them plan trips around charging needs, and advocacy for shared-use EV drivers. In Europe, we’re already working with car manufacturers to encourage the speedy adoption of electric vehicles, which are already available on our application in cities like London, Paris, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Bucharest, Düsseldorf and Munich.” 

Does Uber encourage its riders to make sustainable choices? 

We’re continuously working on new ways we can facilitate such choices for our users. We’ve recently joined the Step Up Declaration, to support the development of new technologies to help the transportation sector address long-standing climate challenges. 

As part of our commitment to Step Up, we plan to expand low carbon mobility options. In particular, this means investments that drive more electric and shared trips. With the launch of our EV champions initiative, we want to accelerate the transition to electric mobility. 

Recently we’ve also laid out our vision for Uber where mobility and e-bikes and e-scooters become a common choice of transport and will be integrated into our app. We’ll also continue to create value for customers and cities, with products such as POOL, ExpressPool, XL and features like Split-Fare and Multiple Destination Trips to help move more people in fewer, fuller cars through ease and affordability.” 

When asked about the future of mobility in general, experts often answer the future will be Electric, Autonomous and Connected. How does Uber fit in this vision?

“Every week Uber dynamically matches millions of carpool rides in over 40 cities around the world. This places our service in a unique position to not only integrate autonomous vehicles into our app and thereby encourage the shared use of this new technology, ultimately discouraging the growth of private car ownership. Our unique position also offers an opportunity in each city we operate in, by acting as a funnel through which we can accelerate the transition to electric mobility within the millions of drivers who actively use our app. 

Our autonomous ambitions are already well underway, with our technology having facilitated over 50,000 passenger trips and logged over 3 million autonomous miles. On the low carbon vehicle front, in London we plan to only have 100% hybrid or fully electric vehicles with no diesel vehicles on uberX by the end of 2019, and as part of our EV Champions initiative we plan to generate at least 5 million EV rides over the next year. 

With 4 billion trips having taken place in 2017 alone, and around 15 million trips happening on our app every day, I believe we can be a leading figure in making such a future a reality.”

Authored by: Fien Van den steen