Photograph by Spencer Platt—Getty Images
By Kia Kokalitcheva
June 14, 2016

Driverless cars are the next frontier in transportation, and Uber wants to be ready.

The ride-hailing giant is pushing to take advantage of the emerging technology while also trying to build those cars itself—and for good reason, according to Uber chief product officer Jeff Holden.

“That is not a situation where the tech is going to be evenly distributed,” he said Tuesday at a technology conference in San Francisco hosted by Bloomberg.

Whichever company can build driverless cars will have a unique edge over competitors, he added. It is a means of achieving the “lowest possible price, and highest possible reliability,” Holden explained.

Last year, Uber unveiled a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University as well as a research and development center in Pittsburgh to work on driverless car technology. Uber is also working with the University of Arizona’s College of Optical Science on optics technology for mapping and safety features that are critical to autonomous vehicles.

However, the company’s relationship with Carnegie Mellon has since cooled, according to the university. Uber is mostly working at its tech center alone, along with some of the robotics experts it poached from the university.

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So is Uber racing to be the absolute first to build driverless cars?

Not necessarily, according to Holden. “It’s important to be not last,” he said. The true obstacle to success would be if a competitor not only built driverless cars first, but was also able to deploy them on a large scale and thereby capture much of the market.

That’s likely also why Uber has opted to work on as much of the technology itself as possible instead of outsourcing it to partners, as rival Lyft has chosen to do through its alliance and $500 million investment from General Motors earlier this year.

Although Uber’s driverless car ambitions have only been public for about a year, Holden revealed that it’s something the company has been thinking about for quite a while. “It goes back to when I started and [CEO Travis Kalanick] and I were brainstorming about the future,” said Holden, who joined Uber in March 2014.

Nevertheless, the race for driverless cars is becoming tighter, and while most experts say we won’t see any of these cars in a commercial capacity until about 2020, Holden says they will be on the road sooner than most people think.

“I think you’re going to start seeing activity on the road this year from multiple players” he hinted, though he also added that widespread use of these cars is indeed a few year away. And he may be right—less than a month ago, Uber started to test its self-driving car technology in Pittsburgh.

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