Uber washes the hands of its self-driving division, with the ride-hailing firm tossing a towel at the Autonomous Effort as it trades technology for a minority interest in Aurora. It’s an end to what has proven to be one of the most divisive efforts to get people out of the steering wheel, and Uber and its partners will be holding up 40% of the Amazon and Sequoia-backed autonomy startups.
For Uber, it’s a chance to move out of the increasingly unwieldy shadow of a project that has always threatened to overshadow the business. Uber’s self-driving unit had expanded to about 1,200 employees, spread across various locations. However it was safety and market speed that dominated the debate, not driverless technology.
Most notably, that included a death in Tempe, Arizona, involving an autonomous Uber vehicle. The fatal accident took place in 2018, with the Uber safety driver reportedly monitoring the car. The investigation found that she was, in fact, distracted at the time, but also revealed dubious decisions regarding Uber’s engineers’ updated SUV safety systems.
The incident led to a renewed drive by Uber backers for the Autonomous Project to begin to execute on the non-significant amount of investment the division has received. Uber’s long-term target, the company maintained, was to replace human drivers with self-driving vehicles. However, despite vigorous maneuvering to get the vehicles on public roads for extended beta testing, the pledge has yet to come to fruition.
In the meantime, Aurora is much less established in the industry, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own heft. Established in 2017, it is currently running autonomous test fleets in the Bay Area, Pittsburgh and Dallas, creating the so-called Aurora Car.
This is a suite of stand-alone applications and sensors that can theoretically be applied to a range of vehicles, from passenger cars to haulage. The acquisition of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) – including team and technology, but not ATG Chief Eric Meyhofer – would concentrate first on heavy-duty vehicles, Aurora says, before looking at light-duty projects.
Uber will take 40 per cent of Aurora back and invest $400 million in the venture. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi will join the Aurora Board of Directors.
A strategic alliance between the companies is also part of the agreement. That ‘connects our technology to the world’s leading ride-hailing platform and strengthens our role to deliver the Aurora Driver broadly.