- Since launching a self-driving research program about five years ago, Uber has struggled to develop the technology.
- A fatal crash, internal strife, and unreliable technology have created skepticism about Uber's ability to deliver a driverless car, both within and outside the company.
- Uber says it has made improvements to its autonomous software, and the company's chairman was reportedly impressed by a February test drive.
- Are you a current or former Uber employee? Do you have an opinion about what it's like to work there? Contact this reporter at [email protected], on Signal at 646-768-4712, or via his encrypted email address [email protected]
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Uber has said self-driving cars are essential to its future, but the ride-hailing firm's autonomy division, the Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), has long struggled to make significant progress toward delivering a vehicle that can safely and efficiently move passengers and goods, obviating the need to give the bulk of each fare to a human driver.
Part of the problem is that self-driving is really hard to make happen: Waymo has spent more than a decade on the tech, and just this month started offering a truly driverless service in the Phoenix suburbs. But Uber ATG has faced more struggles than its competitors, including the March 2018 crash in which it killed a pedestrian in Arizona, ongoing internal strife, and unreliable technology.
Those issues have left some Uber investors frustrated and outside experts pessimistic about the division's prospects.
"I would not be surprised if Uber just pulls the plug on the whole program within the next 12 months," Guidehouse Insights research analyst Sam Abuelsamid told Business Insider in September. Unless, he said, Uber manages to sell of the division.
Reports published by Business Insider and other outlets over the past two years, based on conversations with Uber ATG employees and internal documents, have helped explain why the project has failed to live up to its promise.
To catch you up with the chaos and controversy surrounding Uber's efforts to build self-driving cars, we've laid out everything we know about ATG, below.
Are you a current or former Uber employee? Do you have an opinion about what it's like to work there? Contact this reporter at [email protected], on Signal at 646-768-4712, or via his encrypted email address [email protected]
The former head of ATG stole trade secrets from Waymo
Anthony Levandowski worked at Google's self-driving-car project, now called Waymo, before quitting in early 2016 to found Otto, an autonomous-truck startup that Uber bought a few months later. Levandowski then became the head of Uber's autonomous-vehicle program, which had launched the year before.
In 2017, Waymo sued Uber, alleging the ride-hailing firm had acquired Otto to access technical documents that Levandowski had taken with him when he left Google. Waymo didn't name Levandowski as a defendant in its suit (which the companies settled in 2018), but the Department of Justice in 2019 indicted the engineer on 33 counts of trade-secret theft and attempted trade-secret theft.
Levandowski pled guilty to one of those counts and in August received an 18-month prison sentence, to start after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A fatal crash exposed tech issues
In March 2018, an Uber's self-driving test vehicle hit and killed a woman in Arizona. It was the first known fatal accident involving a vehicle meant to be fully autonomous.
People who worked for Uber ATG told Business Insider that before the crash, Uber's automated-driving tech had trouble understanding its surroundings and predicting how nearby objects would move. Uber had also deactivated its test vehicles' ability to quickly hit the brakes to avoid a collision, thinking it would be safer for the person monitoring the vehicle's performance from behind the wheel to make such maneuvers to avoid unnecessary braking that could startle nearby drivers. Investigators said the safety operator behind the wheel was watching "The Voice" on her phone at the time of the collision; she was charged with negligent homicide in September.
Uber took its autonomous test vehicles off the road for nine months after the accident, left Arizona altogether, and brought them back slowly to its other testing sites. Even now, the company has fewer than 10 self-driving test vehicles on the road, Bloomberg reported in September.
An Uber representative said the company has made a number of "critical safety changes" since the March 2018 incident, including keeping its vehicles' automatic emergency-braking systems on at all times.
Uber is still struggling to refine its self-driving tech
The Information reported in September that an ATG manager sent an email to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi saying, "The car doesn't drive well" and that it "struggles with simple maneuvers." Former Uber CTO Thuan Pham told The Information that he described to Khosrowshahi his concerns about the pace of ATG's development.
"I just don't understand why, from all observable measures, the thing isn't making progress," Pham told The Information.
Last year, as Uber tried to improve the performance of its test vehicles in Pittsburgh, the vehicles made a mistake or questionable maneuver three times per mile, The Information reported.
The Uber representative said the company has made significant improvements to its software and sensors.
ATG has been marked by internal divisions
Over the years, rifts have emerged at ATG between employees with different backgrounds. In 2018, Business Insider reported that engineers in ATG's San Francisco office were frustrated that the former Carnegie Mellon researchers who worked in the Pittsburgh office didn't have experience building products designed for commercial use, while the Pittsburgh employees saw their San Francisco counterparts as "whiny and ungrateful."
According to The Information's September report, employees with experience at aerospace firms or government agencies believe ATG's software engineers want to develop their automated-driving tech too quickly, while the software engineers believe they're being held back by an excessive focus on safety.
Investors are getting restless
Bloomberg reported in September that two of Uber's biggest investors, SoftBank and Benchmark, have urged Khosrowshahi to reconsider ATG's approach and bring more outside investment into the unit. ATG has received funding from Toyota and Denso in recent years, and Eric Meyhofer, the head of ATG, suggested to The Information that Uber would seek new partners.
Uber declined to comment on Bloomberg's report.
Experts are skeptical
Abuelsamid told Business Insider in September that he wouldn't be surprised if Uber shut down ATG due to the unit's lack of meaningful progress. Guidehouse dropped Uber from its ranking of companies developing autonomous mobility services this year, and Bloomberg doesn't consider Uber one of the autonomous-vehicle industry's leaders.
Uber isn't the only company that's faced challenges in developing self-driving cars
As a whole, the autonomous-vehicle industry has not fulfilled the optimistic expectations created by companies and analysts during the 2010s. At this point, no automaker appears close to selling vehicles that can operate without human oversight, and only Waymo and Motional are giving rides to paying customers in self-driving vehicles, though both operate in relatively small areas.
Uber says improvements are coming
Uber is working on new automated-driving software, The Information and Bloomberg reported. Meyhofer told The Information that the new software will allow vehicles to better understand their surroundings, and the Uber representative told Business Insider it will speed up the implementation of new code into the company's test vehicles.
In February, Uber chairman Ron Sugar rode in self-driving prototype vehicles on a test track and came away impressed, according to The Information.
"Thanks again for a terrific visit to Uber ATG. I learned a great deal from you and your team — it well exceeded my expectations," Sugar reportedly wrote in an email to Meyhofer.
The Uber representative confirmed to Business Insider The Information's account of Sugar's visit to ATG.
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