Global taxi company Uber has revealed plans to buy a massive fleet of self-driving cars from Volvo, accelerating its shift from a ride-sharing company to one that operates its own vehicles.
The partnership, set to begin in 2019, would see Volvo providing Uber with examples of its flagship XC90 SUV, fitted with high-tech autonomous technology. Uber will add its own specialised sensor array to the roof of the car, and then operate the vehicles as genuine self-driving cars – with no need for a human behind the wheel.
The non-exclusive deal will allow both companies to form similar partnerships with others. The Financial Times estimates the purchase could be worth as much as £1.1bn to Chinese-owned Volvo.
The two companies already committed £2.26m last year to develop a vehicle that would accommodate the necessary alterations for full autonomy. While Uber does currently operate a small fleet of XC90s as a test-bed, the vehicles cannot be used without a human safety driver as they lack specialised back-up steering and braking systems.
"In a self-driving world there is no human, so you need redundant steering and braking and actuation systems, such that if there is an electrical or mechanical failure, the back-up system can kick in," Jeff Miller, Uber's head of automotive partnerships told the Financial Times.
This massive agreement could kick-start legislation allowing autonomous vehicles onto public roads. Currently, tests are limited to a few US cities. Paul Newton, director of consultancy firm HIS Automotive, was sceptical that laws would change in time for Uber and Volvo's 2019 partnership.
"The issue is that we don't have any legislation in any city of the world that would remotely allow this sort of thing to happen at the moment," he told the BBC.
"We're expecting Japan to be one of the first to allow 'level four' automation - where you have the vehicle doing most of the work but still need a human with steering controls in the driving seat. But 'level five' - where it's a completely autonomous vehicle in every sense of the word - is less likely to be around in this timeframe."