Uber’s self-driving trucks division is dead, long live Uber self-driving cars

Uber is shuttering its self-driving trucks unit, a beleaguered program borne out of the company’s controversial multi-million acquisition of Otto nearly two years ago.

The company said Monday that Uber Advanced Technologies Group will stop development of self-driving trucks and instead focus its efforts on self-driving cars.

“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,” Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, said in an emailed statement.

Uber Freight, a business unit that helps truck drivers connect with shipping companies, is unaffected by this decision. Uber Freight, which launched in May 2017, is designed for vetted and approved drivers, who can use it to find nearby available loads and see destination info, distance required and payment upfront. If the drivers like what they see, they can tap to book.

Uber Freight, which started in three regions, is now available throughout the continental U.S. And it is considered a viable and promising business (and revenue opportunity) within the company. The business unit has expanded threefold in the past 15 months and has offices in San Francisco and Chicago.

“Rather than having two groups working side by side, focused on different vehicle platforms, I want us instead collaborating as one team, according to an email reviewed by TechCrunch that was sent by Meyhofer to employees. “I know we’re all super proud of what the Trucks team has accomplished, and we continue to see the incredible promise of self-driving technology applied to moving freight across the country. But we believe delivering on self-driving for passenger applications first, and then bringing it to freight applications down the line, is the best path forward. For now, we need the focus of one team, with one clear objective.”

Uber’s self-driving trucks unit is based in San Francisco, while the team dedicated to self-driving cars is located in Pittsburgh. Uber says it will pivot employees focused on self-driving trucks to other work that supports its ongoing development of self-driving technology. If there isn’t a comparable role, Uber will offer relocation to Pittsburgh or a separation package to support the transition.

Uber ATG is going to continue to investigate approaches to highway driving using the car platform, and is going to keep its relationship with truck manufacturers intact. The company may return to self-driving trucks, but only after it has developed the foundation of the self-driving system.

Uber ATG will continue its in-house development of light detection and ranging radar known as LiDAR. This technology, which would later be at the heart of a lawsuit between Uber and Waymo, measures distance using laser light to generate highly accurate 3D maps of the world around the car.

Uber’s self-driving truck efforts have been plagued by controversy since its beginning. Uber bought Otto, the self-driving trucks startup founded by former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski and three others, including Lior Ron, who was head of product at Google Maps, in August 2016 for $680 million. (Later reports suggest the actual payout might have been as low as $220 million.)

As part of the acquisition, Levandowski became head of Uber’s self-driving car research.

Two months later, the company enjoyed a moment of glory that received a lot of media attention: a self-driving truck that drove 120 highway miles along a route in Colorado with a trailer full of Budweiser.

But the buzz around the size of the Otto deal and its self-driving truck run in Colorado would soon be replaced with a different, more unwelcoming kind of attention.

Nine months after the acquisition, Uber was embroiled in a trade secrets lawsuit with Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that spun out to become a business under Alphabet. Waymo accused Levandowski of hatching a plan to use trade secrets related to Waymo’s in-house development of LiDAR tech and use it to kickstart Otto and ultimately, Uber’s own self-driving technology program.

The lawsuit, filed against Otto and its parent company Uber in February 2017, alleged patent infringement and stealing trade secrets. The lawsuit made a number of allegations specifically against Levandowski, including that he downloaded more than 14,000 confidential and proprietary files shortly before his resignation. Waymo contended that Otto and Uber were using key parts of its self-driving technology, specifically related to LiDAR.

Uber would later fire Levandowski. However, the polarizing star engineer isn’t out of the self-driving trucks game just yet. TechCrunch uncovered that Levandowski was behind Kache.ai, a self-driving trucks company that is still in stealth mode.

The case did go to trial in February 2018. Before a jury could weigh in, the two parties reached a settlement agreement. Uber agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into their hardware and software. Uber also agreed to pay a financial settlement that includes 0.34 percent of Uber equity, per its Series G-1 round $72 billion valuation. In other words, Waymo got about $244.8 million in Uber equity.

Uber ATG has had other existential struggles in recent months. The unit has suffered a number of departures. The other three Otto founders left, including Don Burnette, who, with Paz Eshel, formerly of Battery Ventures, in April founded an autonomous vehicle company called Kodiak Robotics.

In March, and just six weeks after settling with Waymo, an Uber self-driving test vehicle was involved in a tragic fatal accident in Tempe, Ariz. Uber halted all of its autonomous vehicle operations March 19, the day after one of its vehicles struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in the Phoenix suburb. Uber was testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads in Tempe, Ariz., where the accident occurred, as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

Uber’s decision to shut down its self-driving trucks operation comes just a week after the company put its autonomous vehicles back on Pittsburgh’s city streets. For now, Uber’s modified self-driving Volvo XC90 vehicles will only be driven manually by humans and under a new set of safety standards that includes real-time monitoring of its test drivers and efforts to beef up simulation.

This manual-first rollout is a step toward Uber’s ultimate goal to relaunch its autonomous vehicle testing program in Pittsburgh.