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Uber's self-driving CEO says the company needs robo-taxis because it can't grow its fleet of human drivers fast enough

Business Insider | Jun 14, 2019, 03.40AM IST

Eric Meyhofer

CNBC video/Business Insider

Uber self-driving unit CEO Eric Meyhofer

  • Uber is making progress on its goal to launch a fleet of robo-taxis that do not have a human driver at all.
  • Eric Meyhofer, CEO of Uber's self-driving car unit, said the company plans to begin testing the cars without human safety drivers in small trials in 2020.
  • The company hopes these cars will help augment its 3-million strong human driver workforce because, Meyhofer said, the company has trouble attracting and keeping enough drivers to meet the growth of its rideshare service.
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

Will Uber's self-driving robot cars eventually replace its nearly 3 million human drivers? The CEO of the self-driving unit, Eric Meyhofer, won't say.

But Meyhofer, head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, did tell CNBC that Uber needs a fleet of robot cars because it has difficulty attracting enough drivers to meet its growth needs.

He was showing off Uber's newest self-driving car from Volvo, which was designed in the factory to work with Uber's self-driving tech. That means that Uber engineers don't have to retrofit the cars after-the-fact.

As Business Insider previously reported, one of the contributing factors to the fatal accident, in which an Uber self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Phoenix last year, was that Uber engineers had forbidden the car from slamming on the brakes, even if it detected "a squishy thing" - Uber's term for a human or an animal, and they had also disabled Volvo's own emergency-braking factory settings, sources told Business Insider.

uber self driving car

Uber

So such factory integration should be a big step up for safety when the car is on the road without human safety drivers, which Uber plans to begin testing in select areas next year, he said.

Read: Uber self-driving CEO says people are bullying its self-driving cars with rude gestures and road rage

Meyhofer wouldn't say where the human-less tests will take place or how many of these cars might eventually be deployed in order for Uber to make a profitable business out of robo-taxis. He did say that the company has a couple of cities already in mind for the trials.

When asked about the implications of robo-taxis replacing human jobs, he hinted that they wouldn't. Their mission will be to help Uber augment its ridesharing service, allowing it to grow, something he said it is struggling with right now, both in attracting drivers and keeping them.

"One of the challenges Uber faces with its ride business, it's having trouble maintaining its growth. The amount Uber grows is phenomenal, as we've all seen, and we want to keep that growth rate continuing," he said.

"Getting driver partners on the network and getting them to stay on the network, that's a challenging thing for us. With self-driving, we're going to be able to stabilize our growth rate a little bit more and add more of the service that people love so much," he said.

Read: An engineer at Uber's self-driving-car unit warns that it's more like 'a science experiment' than a real car capable of driving itself

The company has told investors, via its quarterly earnings report, that its self-driving cars could very well reduce the need for drivers, and this may cause drivers to grow unhappy with the company in the short term. 

"We are investing in our autonomous vehicle strategy, which may add to Driver dissatisfaction over time, as it may reduce the need for Drivers," the company said in financial documents.

 

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