Last week, Uber Technologies Inc. said it will donate $5.5 million to Carnegie Mellon University to support a new faculty chair in robotics and three graduate fellowships. Is that an expression of goodwill by the transportation company, or is it a mere consolation prize after Uber hired away at least 40 researchers from the university?
Uber, which built a large campus for its Advanced Technologies Center near CMU in Pittsburgh, needs to guarantee that there are enough roboticists coming out of the school and setting up shop in the area.
“We’re pumped to be part of a growing innovation ecosystem in Pittsburgh that includes world-leading research institutions and companies, as well as an increasing number of start-ups,” said Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber. For its part, CMU has publicly accepted Uber’s gift.
“Academia-industry partnerships play an important role in promoting our mutual missions of technological innovation and developing outstanding talent at all levels,” said CMU President Subra Suresh. “We are grateful for Uber’s support for the intellectual work at the heart of this activity.”
As The New York Times pointed out, the development of new technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence depends on a delicate balance between incremental academic research and the rush to commercialization. A number of universities are serving as testbeds for driverless vehicles.
For instance, Santa Clara University in California is testing driverless student shuttles provided by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Auro Robotics Inc. The University of Waterloo is also testing self-driving cars, but for personal transport rather than groups of people.
Making rides reliable
“Carnegie Mellon University has proven the power of curiosity many times over with its groundbreaking research in computer science and robotics: research that has made self-driving cars possible,” Kalanick said in a blog post. “And we’re passionate about our mission to make transportation as reliable as running water, for everyone everywhere.”
Safety is in fact a major concern regarding car services and self-driving vehicles. A few human drivers have been accused of assaults, and many people aren’t yet ready to trust fully automated cars. Uber recently hired Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner, to be a senior advisor.
Taxicab drivers have already protested against Uber, Lyft, and similar services in a number of cities worldwide, mainly over fears that their jobs might be replaced. They have also cited safety concerns in demanding more regulation over ride-hailing services.
Reassuring road warriors
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV decided to recall 1.4 million Jeeps after Charlie Miller at Twitter Inc. and Chris Valasek at IOActive Inc. demonstrated for the first time that some vehicle software is vulnerable to hackers.
Uber has since hired the two researchers to join its security team in Pittsburgh. Uber has also partnered with the University of Arizona and bought San Jose, Calif.-based deCarta and to develop mapping and safety technology.
To offer drivers and passengers more amenities such as GPS navigation and virtual assistants, automobiles have become increasingly connected to the Internet, but that brings the dangers of distracted driving and compromised privacy and security.
Self-Driving Comes to California
The following companies are testing self-driving vehicles in California, according to Consumer Watchdog:
- Robert Bosch Group
- Cruise Automation Inc.
- Delphi Automotive PLC
- Google Inc.
- Honda Motor Co.
- Nissan Motor Co.
- Tesla Motors (which is among the carmakers also developing electric vehicles)
- Volkswagen Group
The number of traffic fatalities, which is about 30,000 in the U.S. annually, could be reduced by self-driving cars and algorithmic traffic management systems, said Kalanick.
“We don’t want to be like the taxi guys who came before us — we embrace the future,” he said. “There’s an insane amount of good that comes out of this [technology], which is why so many companies are working on this.”
The threshold of acceptable risk is high for public perceptions of new self-driving cars. Google has already had to deal with negative news media coverage of a few accidents involving its tests of self-driving cars.
Robotic truckers coming soon?
While Toyota’s Gill Pratt believes that driver-assist technologies are more likely in the near future, a major sector looking to automation to save money is the logistics industry, which has limits on how many hours human employees are allowed to drive. Autonomous trucks will be tested in Florida by year’s end.
Still, many companies such as BMW are betting that fully automated driving will start to hit the roads by 2020, intensifying competitive research. Business Intelligence predicts that the installed base for both self-driving and semi-autonomous vehicles will reach 10 million by 2020.
Uber is already competing with Didi Kuaidi for car services in China, where there is a huge potential market of passengers.
In addition, there has been speculation that San Francisco-based Uber is burning through its $2.8 billion of venture capital. Thus, its race to transform from a ride-sharing app company to a self-driving vehicle service provider has some urgency, even if Uber is doubling its revenue every six months, as Kalanick has claimed.
The market for self-driving vehicles could reach $87 billion by 2030, predicts a Lux Research Inc. report, but it notes that fully autonomous cars could take longer to catch on.