In a desperate move to revitalize its self-driving car unit, Uber is shutting down its self-driving truck program. The news, first reported by TechCrunch, comes just two years after Uber acquired Otto Motors for a reported $680 million.
An Uber spokesperson tells The Robot Report the company will focus exclusively on self-driving cars. Uber says “we do not need to immediately develop self-driving trucks to remain competitive in the freight logistics area.”
The company tells The Robot Report it will “pivot employees currently focused on Uber self-driving trucks to other work that supports our ongoing development of self-driving technology. Where there isn’t a comparable role available, we’ll offer relocation or a separation package to support the transition.”
Uber says it will continue its in-house LiDAR project and that Uber Freight, its on-demand logistics project, will be unaffected by the decision. Many industry experts believe self-driving technology will arrive at scale in the trucking industry first. So this is somewhat of a surprising move and an indication that Uber doesn’t agree.
“We’ve decided to stop development on [Uber self-driving trucks] and move forward exclusively with cars,” Eric Meyhofer, Head of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, says in a statement. “We recently took the important step of returning to public roads in Pittsburgh, and as we look to continue that momentum, we believe having our entire team’s energy and expertise focused on this effort is the best path forward.”
Shortly after the Otto acquisition in August 2016, Uber self-driving trucks were being tested in Arizona, California, and a test track in Pittsburgh. And in early March 2018 Uber announced that its self-driving trucks had been hauling freight on highways in Arizona for a few months.
The acquisition also landed Uber Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski, who built Google’s first self-driving car. That also didn’t go well as Levandowski was fired in 2017. Waymo sued Uber for stealing trade secrets, accusing Levandowski of stealing 14,000 “highly confidential” files before leaving the firm. The two companies settled the lawsuit in February 2018 for $250 million in equity.
Uber desperate to salvage self-driving car unit
2018 hasn’t been kind to Uber’s self-driving car unit. In March, an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona. According to reports, Uber’s software was the reason behind the deadly crash. The car’s sensors reportedly detected the pedestrian, but Uber’s software determined it didn’t need to immediately react.
Uber temporarily halted work on self-driving cars following the incident and later announced it would not return to Arizona. Uber also fired 100 employees who sat behind the wheel of the self-driving cars, replacing them with people who have more technical experience. Just last week, Uber resumed testing its cars in Pittsburgh in manual mode, meaning humans are in full control while the cars drive around to collect data.
As Uber scales back its work on autonomous vehicles, its competitors are ramping up. Waymo’s early riders program has performed so well in Arizona that it’s now offering self-driving car rides to and from the Walmart in Chandler, Ariz. And Drive.ai, an autonomous vehicle startup founded in 2015, launched its self-driving on-demand service Monday in a two-mile, geo-fenced area of Frisco, Texas. Of course, there are many other startups developing self-driving cars and self-driving trucks.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in January 2018 the company will have self-driving cabs on the road by mid-2019. That certainly looks unlikely now as Uber is all hands on deck to salvage its self-driving car division.