Uber wants to eliminate drivers from its operation, but the ride-hailing service reportedly just purchased an armada’s worth of Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans that don’t yet have fully autonomous capability.
On Friday, Reuters reported that sources at both companies told the German publication Manager Magazin that an order had been made by Uber for “at least” 100,000 S-Class vehicles.
The shelf price for that volume of Benz’s would be in the neighbourhood of $10 billion.
Another source emerged from the automotive industry to explain that Uber had been “shopping around” for a large number of autonomous cars.
Speaking last September, Uber founder Travis Kalanick touted autonomous driving technology and pledged that his company would use it to expand their business. Before news came of a possible bulk Benz purchase, Uber was reportedly spending billions of privately-raised dollars on the development of its self-driving plans.
Google, which is aggressively pursuing autonomous technology, owns a sub-seven percent stake in Uber.
If the reports of the Mercedes-Benz purchase are true, the sheer volume of vehicles means they won’t arrive at Uber’s doorstep all at once. But where will the self-driving technology come from? Mercedes-Benz already employs autonomous technology in its Intelligent Drive system to keep the vehicle in its own lane, avoid coming into contact with other vehicles, and apply emergency braking, but it doesn’t allow fully autonomous operation.
In 2013 the automaker staged a successful autonomous 103-kilometer road trip in Germany using an S500 research vehicle outfitted with existing hardware, albeit with much more of it.
If Uber has insider information about looming advances in autonomous technology from Mercedes-Benz, it isn’t saying. Hell, it’s not even confirming the purchase of the sedans. And even if the company was about to get its hands on a truly autonomous fleet, it would be up to U.S. regulators to give the go-ahead to operate them.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Advisory recently admitted that the computer controlling an autonomous vehicle could be legally considered its driver, but only if there was no way for an occupant to manipulate the vehicle’s controls. The NHTSA is also seeking to have federal rules regarding autonomous vehicles in place within six months, but that doesn’t mean a green light for road use.