Uber Gives Up on the Self-Driving Dream
December 7, 2020
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In 2015, then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick pulled off a bold talent raid when he poached some 40 roboticists from the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon. The move reportedly left the world class engineering university reeling, and it seemed to signal that the world’s hottest startup was on the cusp of making self-driving cars a reality.

Now, that self-driving unit is no more, and the estimated timeline for robotaxi domination has extended well into this decade. Uber said Monday it would sell off the self-driving unit that was the result of that raid, the Pittsburgh-based Advanced Technologies Group. The 1,200-person unit will be acquired by the self-driving-tech developer Aurora. Uber will invest $400 million in Aurora as part of the deal, bringing Aurora’s valuation to $10 billion and tripling its workforce. Now-Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi will also take a seat on Aurora’s board.

The move continues the consolidation in self-driving technology, as the process of creating safe, secure autonomous vehicles continues to cost more and take longer than prognosticators once believed. Uber ATG lost $303 million between January and September of this year, according to financial filings, and the company has spent billions of dollars in its five years of existence.

Aurora isn’t planning to build a self-driving car or truck itself; instead, it’s developing the complex software that will power autonomous vehicles. It has signed deals with carmakers including Hyundai, the electric vehicle company Byton, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Through the Uber deal, Aurora likely gains another big partner: Toyota. The Japanese company invested $500 million in the Uber self-driving unit last year. Aurora is testing its technology in the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and in Dallas. The company also has offices in Bozeman, Montana, the former home of the lidar company Blackmore, which it acquired in 2019.

The sale of ATG continues another trend, of Uber narrowing its scope and selling off parts of its business as it seeks profitability. The ride-hail company—which once hoped to be an “Amazon for transportation”—offloaded its micromobility unit Jump to Lime this summer, and sold part of its trucking logistics business, Uber Freight, this fall. Uber is also reportedly in talks to sell off its autonomous air taxi business, Elevate. Uber “remains committed to commercializing self-driving transportation on the Uber network through industry partnerships,” spokesperson Sarah Abboud says.

Uber’s self-driving efforts have been troubled. It was sued by Google sibling Waymo for trade-secret theft after acquiring another self-driving technology developer, Otto. After a buzzy few days of public trial in San Francisco, the two companies settled the case, with Uber promising to steer clear of Waymo’s tech—a serious setback for the Uber hardware team. Anthony Levandowski, the Uber self-driving head at the center of the trade secrets case, was later charged by federal prosecutors for his role in the scheme; after pleading guilty, he is now serving an 18-month prison sentence.

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The WIRED Guide to Self-Driving Cars

How a chaotic skunkworks race in the desert launched what’s poised to be a runaway global industry.

In 2018, a testing Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona. (The safety driver behind the wheel has since been charged with negligence.) The death—the self-driving industry’s first—led Uber to halt testing for months while it reevaluated its safety systems and program. (The company didn’t actually have an operational safety division at the time.) According to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Uber’s organizational failures were at least partly responsible for the woman’s death. Today, Uber is back on the road in a more limited capacity, testing in Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.

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