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Call an Uber, and soon you'll get a robot

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick talks self-driving cars and Uber's future at Vanity Fair Summit.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick talks self-driving cars at the Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco.
Screengrab by Dara Kerr

Uber is one of the world's largest ride-hailing services but the company's future holds more, said company CEO Travis Kalanick on Wednesday.

"We're at the very beginning stages of becoming a robotics company," he said. Kalanick was talking about the company's foray into self-driving cars and how that kind of work takes engineering and science. "We have hundreds of scientists working on our hardest problems."

The CEO was speaking with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter at the annual Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco, which brings together head honchos in the business, technology, media and entertainment worlds.

As head of Uber, Kalanick is leading the world's highest valued venture-backed company -- valued at $68 billion. Uber's premise is simple: As a ride-hailing service, it pairs drivers with passengers via a phone app. San Francisco-based Uber has become one of the biggest ride-hailing services on the planet, with more than 40 million monthly active riders and operations in more than 450 cities in more than 70 countries worldwide.

"It's been a pretty substantial and wild ride," Kalanick told Carter.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Uber, however. The ride-hailing service has been beset with lawsuits over how it classifies drivers, if it properly vets drivers before sending them out on the road and whether it disregards local laws not just in the US but in many other countries as well. Uber has even been criticized for not doing enough to school its drivers on passengers with disabilities.

A couple of years ago Uber began to look into self-driving cars and that initiative has now become front and center for the company. Last month, Uber launched a small fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburg. Riders in that city can now be picked up by a driverless car that is also attended by a human safety driver.

"When the software is driving the car, you see what the software see," Kalanick said describing what it's like to be in one of these cars. "As we move towards the future, autonomy is a pretty critical thing for us. It's existential."