Uber aims to again turn the auto market on its head

Tack “free” onto just about anything, and people will go for it.

That has to be the logic behind Uber starting to test its self-driving cars this month in Pittsburgh using real passengers. Think of it as being like an amusement park ride.

There’s got to be some sort of thrill in being in one of the first self-driving vehicles on the road to accept passengers. Think of the bragging rights people would be able to claim.

The ride-hailing company will use autonomous Volvo SUVs and Ford Focuses. People in Pittsburgh soon will be able to call one using an Uber app on a smartphone.

Some may forgo getting into an Uber with an actual driver just so they can take the free ride with the self-driving vehicle, even though the test-drives on public roads will include a human backup driver in case the machine messes up.

The only drawback is why Pittsburgh?

Perhaps it is because Pennsylvania has no laws governing autonomous cars and how they relate to ride hailing, an official of the 7-year-old San Francisco-based company said.

Uber isn’t the only company in the race to develop self-driving cars. There is a lot of competition from other tech and auto companies.

Google, whose parent company is Alphabet Inc., has been testing autonomous cars on public roads since 2009.

But by taking on actual passengers and inking a $300 million alliance with Volvo to supply vehicles and technology, Uber zooms ahead of the competition in the race for self-driving cars.

Driver-free vehicles are expected to be the new day-to-day way that people get around, providing consumers with cheaper transportation than actually owning a vehicle. Imagine texting in a car without worrying about causing an accident or being able to discipline an unruly kid without having to pull over.

Uber announced earlier this year that it had outfitted a Ford Fusion hybrid with radars, laser scanners and high-resolution cameras to make its version of self-driving cars a reality.

The company that roiled the taxicab industry worldwide with its inexpensive, ride-hailing service is pushing to upset the auto industry overall if its driver-less vehicle model is successful.

But it also will likely upset a lot of its own Uber drivers, who have devoted their personal vehicles to try to make some extra money, hauling people around in major cities in the United States and abroad.

If the self-driving cars prove to be successful, Uber will be leaving its drivers at the curb as it keeps on trucking in the world of big business without them.

Lewis Diuguid is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may email him at ldiuguid@kcstar.com.