Uber is sending a fleet of semi-autonomous cars to pick up passengers in downtown Pittsburgh this month, according to a Bloomberg report.

The bold move suggests that the ridesharing giant is pulling ahead of rivals Google and Tesla, who are also in the race to develop self-driving cars. (Google is working on its own ridesharing service, increasing the competition against Uber.)

The company announced a $300 million deal with Volvo to develop a fully autonomous car by 2021. A handful of self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs will be deployed as part of the pilot program later this month, with 100 expected by the end of the year. "We are going commercial," Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick told Bloomberg. "This can't just be about science."

For now, the pilot trips will be free, and every test vehicle will come equipped with a human supervisor in the front seat--ready to take control if there's a system malfunction. A co-pilot in the passenger seat will be there to take notes, and the entire ride will be recorded on camera.

To build out the technology, Uber recently agreed to acquire Otto, a San Francisco-based driverless truck startup. Otto developed a program that lets trucks steer themselves, aspects of which will be integrated into Uber's cabs.

Kalanick sees self-driving cars as "existential" for his firm, which was most recently valued at more than $62 billion. "The minute it was clear to us that our friends in Mountain View were going to be getting in the ridesharing space, we needed to make sure there is an alternative [self-driving cars]," he said. "Because if there is not, we're not going to have any business."

The service may face scrutiny in the coming months, as concerns over the safety of these vehicles mount. Last month, a driver using Tesla's autopilot service died after a collision with a tractor-trailer, and several of Google's cars have logged minor accidents.

Published on: Aug 18, 2016