Uber Doesn’t Rule Out Return To Self-Driving Trucks

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The ride-hailing company has shuttered its self-driving trucks unit, which grew out of the troubled acquisition of start-up Otto two years ago

Uber has said it may return to the development of self-driving trucks at a later time, after announcing it would shutter truck research to focus on autonomous cars earlier this week.

The truck programme grew out of Uber’s acquisition of self-driving trucks startup Otto for $680 million (£518m) in August 2016, a purchase that was later at the heart of an acrimonious trade secrets dispute between Uber and Google parent Alphabet.

Uber said it closed the Trucks division in order to better focus its efforts, but said it could return to the area after establishing a solid foundation for autonomous vehicles.

“We believe having our entire team’s energy and expertise focused on this effort is the best path forward,” said Eric Meyhofer, head of the Uber Advanced Technologies Group, in a statement.

uberTrade secrets

The decision doesn’t affect Uber Freight, a business unit launched in May of last year that links vetted truck drivers with shipping companies.

The trucks division is located in San Francisco, while Uber’s self-driving cars team is located in Pittsburgh. Uber said it would reassign staff to other roles in its San Francisco offices or offer them relocation to the east coast.

As part of the Otto acquisition, Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski – a former Google engineer – became head of Uber’s self-driving car research.

Two months after the buy, Uber carried out a delivery in which a self-driving truck drove 120 miles on a Colorado highway with a trailer of Budweiser beer.

But Uber was later hit by a trade secrets lawsuit alleging that Levandowski had stolen technology from Alphabet self-driving subsidiary Waymo for use by Otto and then Uber.

Safety concerns

The technology related to Waymo’s proprietary laser guidance system, or Lidar, according to the lawsuit, which the companies later settled. Uber later fired Levandowski, who went on to found another self-driving trucks start-up called Kache.ai, which is still in stealth mode.

Uber said it plans to continue developing its own in-house Lidar system, a critical component of its self-driving vehicles.

In March, six weeks after the Waymo settlement, an Uber self-driving test vehicle was involved in a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which a pedestrian was killed.

Uber halted its self-driving tests at the time, and relaunched them in Pittsburgh only last week.

The company said its self-driving Volvo vehicles will only be manually driven by humans for now and will follow a stricter set of safety standards.

Self-driving cars have been put forward as a way of reducing traffic accidents and automating city driving.

Companies including Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler and Bosch are amongst those investing in the field.

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