- Uber CEO suggests company is open to partnerships on autonomous tech.
- Profitable Level 4 robo-taxis face increased skepticism in industry.
- Ride-hailing apps await return to pre-pandemic operations.
The race toward Level 5 autonomy among developers may have seemed to have stalled over the past two years, notwithstanding Tesla’s recent roll-out of what it calls “Full Self Driving.” But have all tech giants given up on the commercial dream of quick and easy deployments of robo-taxis, which were promised just a few years ago to arrive by 2020?
After rumors that Uber was seeking to sell its Advanced Technologies Group, the autonomous research and development arm of the company, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi indicated at an RBC Capital Markets conference this week that Uber was open to partnerships with other autonomous tech developers, Reuters reports.
Earlier this year Khosrowshahi also seemed to suggest that fairly limited, Level 4 geofenced routes was what the company was working toward, because Uber could dominate a limited set of routes in a given city and then build on that. The Uber CEO also acknowledged earlier this year that Level 5 autonomy was a long way off.
Uber was recently reported by Reuters to be in talks to sell its ATG arm to Aurora Innovation, a start-up working on autonomous tech. Rumors of an impending deal seemed to indicate that Uber was seeking to give up on research that was not any closer to delivering the long-promised robo-taxi promise. Reports of ATG’s possible sale came during what’s increasingly seen as a make-or-break moment for a number of tech giants backing autonomous vehicle research, as companies like Uber seek to derive revenue from at least some form of autonomous vehicles, even if they are deployed in a very confined geographic area with a lot of other caveats.
Skeptics of Level 4 rollout see this as a very expensive solution on a very limited scale, as autonomous developers seek to replace human drivers in geofenced areas through the use of pricey and complex hardware. While a number of companies have been testing Level 4 vehicles in real-world environments, some industry observers have pointed out that there are still massive costs involved to provide driverless rides to passengers in limited geographic areas, and it’s harder still to actually make money doing it.
If Uber has indeed been looking to spread the costs of development at ATG or sell it altogether, it would follow a recent pattern of sales of some of its units during a difficult time for the ride-hailing industry. During a year that it had expected to post a partial profit, Uber has faced the perfect storm of reduced travel due to the coronavirus pandemic amid a growing consensus that Level 5 robo-taxis were too far on the horizon to happen within this decade at all, and that Level 4 was too limited and too costly to make money.
Increased skepticism about Level 5 autonomy had set in after the death of Elaine Herzberg, who was struck and killed by an Uber-operated test vehicle in 2018, with Uber quickly reaching a civil settlement with her family. In the two subsequent years a number of developers have begun limited testing of Level 4 vehicles with the intention of fielding robo-taxis along some limited routes in the near future, but even these developments have not been seen as a potential boon to ride hailing apps due to development and hardware costs, and the limited potential for actually making money on such limited routes. Taken together, these developments have pushed back a mass-market arrival date of Level 4 and Level 5 tech, which is now seen to be decades rather than years away from profitable deployment in real traffic environments, greatly altering the calculus of some Silicon Valley tech giants when it comes to Level 5 technology if not Tesla itself.
Is this one of the first signs of Uber’s return to its core business, with human drivers behind the wheel?
The ride-hailing giant was dealt a timely victory earlier this month when voters in California came out in favor of state ballot proposition which had preserved Uber and Lyft’s ability to treat its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. But even this victory, achieved at no small cost for the gig worker app industry, felt a bit hollow given the drop in ridership in the months following the outbreak of the pandemic, which is now said to be entering a much more dangerous phase than in March of this year.
It remains to be seen just how Uber and Lyft’s core businesses will weather another wave of the pandemic, but it’s clear that the race to a robo-taxi utopia will take longer than expected. It appears that Uber could be stuck with human drivers for the foreseeable future.
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