Uber Recruits Some Rich Friends to Drive Its Autonomous Cars

Wired 19 Apr 2019 07:27
Part of Uber's test fleet of self-driving vehicles. Outside investors are putting $1 billion into Uber's self-driving efforts.
AP

When Uber publicly filed for an initial public offering last week, it cemented its reputation as a technology behemoth with more than a few liabilities. One particularly weighty albatross: its Autonomous Technology Group, which since 2015 has poured hundreds of millions into building self-driving car tech it has yet to commercialize. Make that at least $1 billion: According to the filing, Uber spent $457 million in 2018 on research and development for autonomous vehicles (and its other tech moonshots, like “flying taxis”)—a figure up 19 percent from 2017.

So it was good news for Uber—not to mention the potential shareholders circling its IPO—when it announced a major investment into its Autonomous Technology Group from a Japanese consortium on Thursday. The $1 billion infusion comes from Toyota, the automotive supplier Denso, and the Softbank Vision Fund, which is aggressively bankrolling ambitious transportation technology companies. The investment values the autonomous tech group at $7.25 billion and creates a new board for the group, with seats for Softbank and Toyota; the board seats may need to be OK'd by the US government.

Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.

“The team at Uber ATG has made significant progress developing highly robust automated ride-sharing technology,” Softbank Vision Fund CEO Rajeev Misra said in a statement. “With a comprehensive platform of hardware and software, the largest global ride-sharing network and Toyota’s partnership, this collaboration is well-positioned to deploy automated ride-sharing services at scale.”

In reality, Uber’s strategy on autonomous vehicle technology is more complicated. It is working, with the help of Volvo Cars, to build its own technology for self-driving vehicles, which it could run as a fleet operator. The company also has a two-year-old agreement with Daimler, to one day put that automaker’s self-driving vehicles on the Uber platform. And it has a prior relationship with Toyota, which invested $500 million in Uber ATG last summer and outlined a plan to work with Uber to build a self-driving Toyota Sienna minivan and run it on Uber’s platform. (The companies are still in search of another partner, who might operate—clean, maintain, park—the future self-driving vehicles.)

Despite those efforts, the Uber IPO filing noted the company’s whole autonomous vehicle venture might still fall flat. “We may fail to develop and successfully commercialize autonomous vehicle technologies and expect that our competitors will develop such technologies before us,” the company wrote. A year ago, Uber pressed pause for nine months on its self-driving testing, after a test autonomous vehicle struck and killed an Arizona woman. Uber says it has since revamped its testing safety protocols.

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This week’s $1 billion investment also thickens the plot for the Softbank Vision Fund, which has an unprecedented $93 billion war chest to spend on emergent tech, $60 billion of which it has already committed to transportation-related companies. The Softbank fund owns about 15 percent of Uber, and has a foothold in several other ride hailing companies, including China’s Didi Chuxing, India’s Ola, and Singapore-based Grab. (Yes, they’re all competitors. Yes, it’s complicated.) It owns a 19.6 percent stake in General Motors’ Cruise self-driving unit, after a $2.25 billion investment last May. Toyota and Softbank signed a memorandum of understanding last February, and have a joint mobility venture called Monet Technologies that’s building a nifty little self-driving vehicle called the e-Palette. Softbank also has allied with Honda on its Cruise, Grab, and Monet Technologies investments. Earlier this year, it invested nearly $1 billion in the robo-delivery startup Nuro.

All this is enough to make you break out a storyboard—and reflects the uncertainty and excitement in the transportation sector as players race to build potentially world-shaking tech.

“Potentially” is the operative word here, because Uber’s IPO filing indicates the company believes even a successful self-driving gambit might be endlessly complex. The company says it believes “there will be a long period of hybrid autonomy, in which autonomous vehicles will be deployed gradually against specific use cases, while drivers continue to serve most consumer demand.” It outlines a future in which on-the-ground operations teams might dispatch an AV to pick up a passenger in a well-mapped area in sunny weather, but a human driver on a trafficky, complicated, or even just rainy trip.

That vision sounds work- and capital-intensive, and harkens back to the old-fashioned days of taxi dispatchers. For now, though, it doesn’t seem that money will be Uber’s limiting factor.


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