Self-driving cars seem to be the way of the future, and many automakers are focused on creating the first one. Tesla is eager to release the first Level 5 autonomous vehicle next year, despite major hiccups with its Autopilot technology. Honda claims that it will release a Level 3 autonomous car in the first quarter of 2021.
However, for one auto company, the race to build a fully self-driving car has come to an end. After a problematic history, Uber is handing off its autonomous vehicle project to Aurora, a small self-driving technology startup, according to The Verge. Considering Uber’s struggle to get this project off the ground for years, this is unsurprising news.
Uber’s checkered past
Uber’s self-driving venture began in 2015 when it wanted to eliminate the costs racked up by its drivers. The Uber Advanced Technologies group was founded, with 40 engineers and scientists on board from Carnegie Mellon University. A year later, Uber purchased a self-driving truck startup Otto, which came with the leadership of Anthony Levandowski.
Levandowski was at the head of Google’s first self-driving car test on real roads, so Uber was hopeful about the future. However, its excitement was quickly snuffed out after it was served a lawsuit from Waymo. The sister company of Google claimed that Levandowski had stolen trade secrets prior to his departure from the company.
While Uber initially defended Levandowski, the engineer later admitted that he was guilty of trade theft. He and Google were able to resolve the dispute, but it led to Uber firing its star executive. Uber continued to have more bad luck in 2018 when one of its self-driving cars tragically killed a pedestrian.
For the next two years, Uber would struggle with its autonomous vehicle program. It got a huge investment from Toyota in 2019, but Uber Advanced Technology Group still wasn’t making any significant progress. Uber also had more worries because of COVID-19. The demand for ridesharing services declined as stay-at-home orders were issued, meaning a huge loss of income for Uber.
The Aurora transition for Uber
Now that Uber was struggling with its main business, it needed to let go of its self-driving program. This month, Uber said that it would invest $400 million in Aurora, as well as hand over all its current technology. Aurora also received some qualified engineers from Uber.
Uber’s CEO said little else about the transition, only that they looked forward to Aurora’s efforts. One New York Times journalist says it’s likely that Uber doesn’t want to acknowledge what a drain this project has been. As they put it, Aurora is being paid to take over the endeavor because it’s a “legal and financial headache.”
Why are self-driving cars so hard to produce?
Modern cars may have many fancy tech gadgets and safety features, but self-driving technology is proving to be more complicated. To be fair, vehicle autonomy has progressed rapidly in just a few years. Autonomous cars can detect obstacles in the road and adjust driving speed on their own.
However, there have been too many safety issues that engineers have to consider. The technology inside these autonomous cars has failed at critical times, like avoiding jaywalking pedestrians. It often has trouble deciphering illegal maneuvers from other cars on the road as well. Just like humans, self-driving technology has to identify the situation and take the best course of action.
Sometimes even a computer can’t determine the best solution, which has led to some fatalities. While technology like Tesla’s Autopilot is exciting and convenient, it’s still not developed to the point where it can save lives. If your vehicle is equipped with autonomous technology, your hands should always remain on the wheel while it’s in use.