Uber orders 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo

Volvo swung one of the largest deals for autonomous vehicles on Monday, with an order from Uber for 24,000 vehicles - a move that is expected to advance the case for self-driving cars on American streets as Uber seeks to become an operator and owner of its own car fleet.

Volvo said in a statement that it would provide the San Francisco-based ride-sharing company with its XC90 premium SUVs complete with autonomous driving technologies, from 2019 until 2021. The framework deal is non-exclusive.

"The automotive industry is being disrupted by technology and Volvo Cars chooses to be an active part of that disruption," said Volvo Cars chief executive Hakan Samuelsson.

Passengers can already hail a ride inside a driverless taxi in a small number of US cities - most prominently Pittsburgh - but not without a human operator inside the vehicle.

Volvo, owned by China's Geely Holding since 2010, with its key manufacturing plant located in Goteborg, Sweden.

Volvo said its engineers have worked closely together with engineers from Uber to develop the XC90 premium SUVs that are to be supplied to Uber. The base vehicles incorporate all necessary safety, redundancy and core autonomous driving technologies that are required for Uber to add its own self-driving technology.

The car maker didn't disclose the agreement's value or the precise number of vehicles, but The Washington Post said Uber is buying up to 24,000 autonomous Volvo cars. The deal is based on an alliance Volvo announced with Uber last year when the two companies said they would collaborate on developing self-driving cars, pledging to invest a combined $300 million to the project.

Jeff Miller, Uber's head of automotive alliances, said the company was "thrilled" to expand its partnership with Volvo.

"This new agreement puts us on a path towards mass produced self-driving vehicles at scale," Miller said in a joint statement with Volvo.

The deal between Uber and Volvo could set the stage for what carmakers have been envisaging for some time - thousands of autonomous vehicles ferrying paying customers to their destinations without a human operator, the beginning of a multibillion-dollar robot revolution that could dramatically reconfigure how people get from one place to another.

Though Uber is refining its self-driving technology, company officials said they expect the first robotically driven taxis to appear as early as 2019.

''We're moving aggressively,'' Miller said, noting that the company has not decided which cities to begin with. ''As soon as the technology is ready, there is a manufacturing machine that is ready to go, and we can push the 'make car' button, and we'll have a clear path to having tens of thousands of self-driving vehicles on the road.''

Ultimately, the experiment will depend on the cooperation of municipal policymakers, who have sparred with ride-hailing companies such as Uber for years. But Boston as well as several cities in California have been discussing allowing driverless taxis.

The effort underscores how Uber, which has had several high-profile labour fights with its drivers, including in India, is eyeing a not-so-distant future in which driverless vehicles are commonplace.

The agreement puts Volvo in an unusual position - it would be selling cars to a company whose goal is to dramatically reduce the number of people who own cars. But the auto manufacturer said it could no longer avoid the inevitable.

''We think it's better to be part of potentially disruptive change as opposed to standing on the sidelines and watching it happen,'' said Marten Levenstam, Volvo's vice president for product strategy. ''This will be a major change for the whole auto industry.''