Uber raised many eyebrows late last month by announcing the cessation of testing of its autonomous trucks – development of whom was being carried out through the company’s Advanced Technologies Group. ATG commented on the decision that it wants to focus more on automated passenger cars.
The move comes as a surprise since trucking as a mode of transport has far-reaching benefits if it adopts autonomy. If self-driving technology trickles down to trucks, operators stand to rake in handsome revenues. However, ever since one of Uber’s autonomous test cars struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March, the ride-hailing company’s testing efforts in that direction have been strained, to say the least. After the unfortunate incident, Uber’s self-driving cars have again hit the road, but this time only to gather sensor data in manual mode. “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”, said Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.
The company also said some employees will be transferred to the automonus car division, while a few will be laid off, declining to comment on the exact number of employees affected. Uber had started its autonomous truck development initiative way back in August 2016 when it had acquired self-driving truck startup Otto for $680 million. The high-profile and perhaps infamous acquisition of ex-Google engineer Anthony Levandowski’s startup led many to believe that Uber would be one of the first movers in the automated trucking industry. Although the initiative hasn’t been declared belly up by the company, there is no word on when it will resume testing.
The acquisition of Otto also attracted a lawsuit from Waymo, another active player in the self-driving trucks premise. Waymo was formerly Google’s self-driving-car project, alleging that Levandowski brought its trade secrets to Uber when he sold it to the same. The two companies settled the lawsuit in February this year with Waymo acquiring a stake in Uber worth a little less than $245 million.
Uber’s exit from the automated truck race has pushed Waymo at the front, with the company choosing Atlanta to set up its pilot project. What do Waymo, Tesla, and other smaller startups like Starsky Robotics, Embark, TuSimple and Levandowski’s new startup Kache.ai stand to obtain? The trucking industry generated $676 billion in 2016, according to American Trucking Associations. Automated systems could help increase the longevity of trucks and ease the strain on labor on an industry that is 50,000 drivers short of its required strength.