Uber has let loose a fleet of dozens of camera-laden mapping cars to scan and record the streets of London. For now this will mean improvements to driving routes and vehicle location accuracy, but could eventually lead to the company's self-driving cars coming to the UK.
Beyond simply gathering a clearer picture of the capital's roads, Uber will use the cars to learn more about traffic patterns and precise pick-up and drop-off locations. This will result in Uber drivers stopping exactly where you ask them to, and getting you to your destination more quickly than taking the most popular route.
Starting 16 September, Uber's mapping cars will start driving around London. Then, over the coming weeks and months they will expand into other cities across the UK. Uber's efforts, it says "are similar to what other companies including Apple and TomTom are already doing around the world."
Uber says the imagery captured by its special cars will "help improve core elements of the experience, like ideal pick-up and drop-off points and the best routes for riders and drivers." The system will also help improve UberPool, Uber's service where several customers going in the same direction can share a ride for a reduced price.
Uber's current driver and passenger apps using maps provided by Google in the US and UK, and by local technology giant Baidu in China. Uber will use the imagery captured by its cars to build and improve on these basic offerings to create a more details and efficient map.
But, despite an Uber spokesperson saying autonomous cars are still years away, the move is being seen by many as one towards a future of autonomous taxis navigating themselves around London with no drivers. Just days earlier, on 14 September, Uber launched a pilot programme in Pittsburgh, US, where self-driving Ford cars are used to pick up and drop off customers. They still have a 'driver' who keeps an eye on the car and a co-driver who takes notes, but for the most part the cars drive themselves.
The Pittsburgh service is only possible because Uber spent time mapping the entire city. It would be a logical next step - given UK law permits cars to drive themselves on public roads - to use the new maps of London as part of an autonomous pilot programme of its own.