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10 min read

    10 min read

    Harry here.  Uber’s been testing self-driving cars over the past few months, but they’ve run into some problems.  Today, RSG senior contributor John Ince takes a look at the recent struggles inside Uber’s self-driving division, an autonomous car crash and more!

    In this round up, Uber's having some significant issues with self-driving cars, and Intel might be getting into the self-driving car space too.

    Uber’s self-driving cars have trouble with the whole self-driving thing, leaks show [Mashable]

    Uber wants to take us to a future where self-driving cars are ubiquitous and human drivers are irrelevant. However, if newly leaked documents are correct, the company’s autonomous vehicles struggle to take anyone even a single mile without human intervention.

    That’s right, the safety drivers overseeing the autonomous cars allegedly had to seize control of the vehicles on average once every .8 miles, according to internal documents obtained by Recode. That stat specifically applies to the week that ended on March 8, 2017, and covers 43 active cars. Was it just a bad week for the ride-hail giant? Nope. The same documents show that toward the end of January flesh-and-blood drivers took control on average every .9 miles — hitting the once-per-mile mark in February before slipping back down.

    This is not the first hint of technical difficulty to come out of Uber’s controversial car program. When it first launched in San Francisco this past December, a car was filmed running a red light. Uber quickly blamed the error on the human driver, but The New York Times reported later that (surprise!) the technology was actually to blame. Uber later stopped testing in California after a run-in with the state’s DMV, although it got the OK to bring the program back to its home turf last week. Uber has also tested autonomous cars in Pennsylvania and Arizona.

    Importantly, that .8 mile statistic covers every time drivers had to disengage the autonomous system except in cases of “accidental disengagements, end-of-route disengagements, and early takeovers.” So while not everything was a near crash that almost took out grandma, the .8 number does allegedly represent humans needing to take over to avoid some sort of unpleasant outcome.

    Thankfully, the data is a bit more granular, and Recode reports that last week humans were required to perform “critical” interventions — to avoid striking a person or knocking up around $5,000 or more in property damage — once every 200 miles. Still though. Uber clearly has a long way to go before its autonomous cars can safely drive people around. Maybe its engineers should just focus on flying cars instead.

    My Take:  If Uber’s future is in self driving cars, then the company has huge challenges ahead. Bold predictions from TK aside, the finer details of actually making this technology work are clouding up the fantasy future that Travis Kalanick and his Uber brethren are selling to investors.

    Uber Suspends Arizona Self-Driving Tests after Crash [Fortune]

    Sum and Substance:  Uber will suspend operation of its test fleet of self-driving vehicles in Arizona as it investigates a Friday crash there that ended with an autonomous vehicle rolled onto one side.  No one was seriously hurt in the incident, according to local reports.

    According to authorities, a car failed to yield to the Uber SUV and struck it, suggesting the self-driving vehicle may not have been at fault. Uber has now confirmed that the vehicle was operating in autonomous mode when the crash occurred, but was not carrying a backseat passenger. All of Uber’s autonomous vehicles currently operate with a human in the driver’s seat—in theory, to take over if things go wrong.

    Whether or not this turns out to be a failure of Uber’s technology, it accentuates the company’s struggles to make progress on its self-driving car project. And as described by Recode on Friday, the company’s tech setbacks are rooted in deeper internal struggles in its Advanced Technology Group.

    According to Recode, at least 19 employees, including top engineers, have left ATG since Uber’s August 2016 acquisition of the self-driving startup Otto. Otto co-founder Anthony Levandowski quickly became head of ATG. Former Otto employees are reportedly unhappy with spending less time working on autonomous trucks, the startup’s original mission, while engineers who came to ATG as part of a 2015 mass poaching of engineering talent from Carnegie Mellon University have been disturbed by the leadership shakeup and strategic decisions. Those staffers’ concerns included doubts about the ethics of deploying systems that hadn’t been thoroughly tested, as Levandowski pushed hard for public demonstrations.

    That approach led to a contentious and quickly-aborted rollout in San Francisco, during which self-driving systems failed to recognize stoplights. Without more details, it’s too early to say whether Uber’s impatience led in some way to Friday’s crash. But the incident certainly doesn’t increase faith in the company’s prospects for improvement.

    My Take:  As we start to connect the dots about Uber and look inside what is now seen as a highly dysfunctional corporate culture, we can legitimately question whether we want to trust technology being developed by these guys with our safety as passengers and drivers.  Yes, it appears that the fault in this accident was with the other person in the other vehicle, but a report in The Insurance Journal says two eyewitnesses fault the Uber self driving vehicle.

    Whoever is right or wrong here, the optics here are not good for Uber – and optics are critical because they will influence whether regulators and passengers will buy into what is becoming a highly controversial technology.  Many of the gizmos and gadgets developed by the tech sector are fun toys that can marginally enhance our lives, but here we’re talking about life and death stuff.  You absolutely, positively have to get this technology right before you go to market – and from all indications, Uber is rushing the future before it’s really ready for a big time rollout.  If you don’t believe me, read the article below.

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    Update: Uber has redeployed its self-driving cars in Arizona, according to Wired.

    Inside Uber’s self-driving car mess [Recode]

    Sum and Substance: For Uber, the embattled ride-hail juggernaut now valued at $70 billion, much of the company’s future is resting on what happens this week. But it’s not just the meetings that CEO Travis Kalanick is having with potential candidates to become its first chief operating officer — an appointment focused on fixing the massive controversies that have washed over the ride-hailing company around its dysfunctional management. He’s also gathered leaders from Uber’s self-driving division in Pittsburgh and its counterpart in San Francisco for a critical summit that started on Monday.

    While this isn’t the first meeting between the leaders of its kind, sources say this one has been aimed at hashing out issues of leadership, the entity’s technological progress and questions about what the priority should be for the Advanced Technology Group (ATG), the name of Uber’s self-driving unit. The list of attendees at this self-driving summit has included engineers both old and new — many of whom were either poached from Carnegie Mellon or joined in August of last year when Uber acquired self-driving trucking startup Otto. 

    But the company’s autonomous efforts are in turmoil. According to extensive interviews Recode conducted with former and current employees at the self-driving effort, many think it is at a technological standstill and plagued by significant internal tension, especially among its executive leadership. The issues have included a wave of key talent departures and problematic demos. At least 20 of the company’s engineers have quit since November. One source says a “mini civil war” has broken out between those who joined Otto in search of the independence of a startup, and those who joined Uber’s ATG with ambitions to solidify the company’s place in the future of transportation.

    Many of those issues and the resulting questions can be traced back to when Uber acquired Otto, several sources said. As part of the acquisition, Kalanick put its founder and CEO Anthony Levandowski in charge of all of its autonomous efforts. Uber says that it’s normal for an entity that was founded two years ago as of January 2017 to see this level of attrition, particularly as the company recently paid out its employee bonuses. However, the departures began as early as November 2016.

    Additionally, a company spokesperson said Uber’s ATG has seen fewer departures than the overall company and has hired more people than have left since the start of the year. Now, Levandowski is at the center of a major lawsuit his former employer Alphabet has filed against Uber alleging he stole key intellectual property when he left to create Otto. The lawsuit, which claims Levandowski had a long relationship with Uber before leaving Alphabet, could severely handicap the company’s autonomous efforts if a judge rules against Uber. 

    It’s unlikely all these issues will be remedied within a week, particularly since Kalanick’s focus is divided between the company’s autonomous efforts and its recent public scandals. But sources said the controversial CEO has repeatedly held meetings with the company’s human resources representatives, Levandowski and Eric Meyhofer, a top engineer who joined the Pittsburgh team more than two years ago, just in the first two days of the week. 

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    My Take:  This is a thoroughly disturbing article that digs deeply into Uber’s self driving car initiative.  Levandowski, the guy at the center of this lawsuit and this controversy, comes across as a very sketchy character.   More generally, this article gives a revealing look inside Uber’s culture and the reasons behind  their recent troubles in self driving cars.  Uber is playing with the big boys in this space and if they want to have any chance of becoming a force to be reckoned with, they better get their act together – soon.  If they don’t, they’ll be stuck with disgruntled drivers to deal with for the long haul – and we all know all the problems that presents.

    Intel throws down $15.3 billion to become a player in the self-driving car game [Mashable]

    Sum and Substance: Money keeps pouring in from companies trying to perfect the self-driving car. Like, a ton of money. The latest eye-popping transaction: Intel announced Monday that it was buying Israeli company Mobileye for $15.3 billion. Mobileye’s systems, which are used by 27 carmakers, depend on specialized cameras to sense a car’s surroundings on the road. It’s the tech behind the emergency braking and lane assistance systems that are becoming more common in new vehicles. 

    The acquisition shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, since the two companies have been working together with BMW since last year to create a fully autonomous car by 2021. The first test vehicles for that project, iNext, are slated to hit the streets as part of a pilot program in the second half of this year.

    Intel’s big acquisition shows that it won’t be content simply providing chips for self-driving systems. While $15.3 billion is a massive investment, Intel believes the self-driving vehicle market could climb to $70 billion by 2030. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich made the company’s intentions clear when announcing the acquisition. He touted the potential of combining Intel’s processing power and Mobileye’s advanced automotive computer vision systems, as well as its ties to automakers. “Together, we can accelerate the future of autonomous driving with improved performance in a cloud-to-car solution at a lower cost for automakers,” he said in a statement. 

    The real value here is that the systems developed by the Intel-Mobileye partnership won’t be tied to just one automaker or use case, like other projects in the works from automakers like Tesla or ride-hailing companies like Uber. Instead, Intel will look to reap the benefits of being a free agent, so more deals like the BMW partnership could be on the way.

    My Take:  These are eye popping numbers. $15 billion is as much as Uber has raised in total during its short 7 year lifespan.  The heavy hitters of tech are stepping up to the plate big time in the driverless car space.  Personally, I like Intel’s strategy much better than Uber’s.  Being a free-agent supplier to all automakers gives Intel a sustainable business model – something for which Uber still seems to be searching.

     Readers, what do you think about Uber’s future with self-driving cars? Do you think the crashes and negative press will derail Uber and open up space for a new competitor, like Intel?
    -John @ RSG
    John Ince

    John Ince

    John Ince is a former Fortune reporter and Wall Street banker. He has about 1,000 rides under his belt driving part time for Uber and Lyft.  He’s writing a book about his experiences entitled:  Travels With Vanessa:  A Rideshare Driver Tries To Make Sense of It all - For a sneak peak visit the link above.