Uber Is Losing The Self Driving Car War. Is It Too Late To Catch Up?

Silicon Valley may be the birthplace of self-driving technology, but Arizona has become its testing ground. That’s where Uber and Waymo, Google parent company Alphabet’s self-driving subsidiary, have both set up shop to test their self-driving cars. The road hasn’t always been smooth—in addition to being dragged into a major intellectual-property lawsuit, both Waymo and Uber have experienced firsthand the hard realities of autonomous vehicles. In March, one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a 49-year-old pedestrian. The car’s automatic emergency brakes were disabled, and authorities said the safety driver monitoring the car was watching a show on her phone at the time of the accident. Waymo has not dealt with fatalities, but it recently put “safety drivers” back in the driver’s seats of its autonomous vehicles, which still struggle with some traffic situations.

Nevertheless, Waymo appears to be pushing forward. A 400-person group called Early Riders has been beta testing the company’s autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans in the Phoenix suburbs, and this week, Waymo began giving public rides through a 24-hour service called Waymo One. The company expects to expand the program to additional riders and cities in the future. Its competitor, meanwhile, has fallen behind. In May, Uber shut down its testing program in Arizona, and got rid of many of its testers. According to The New York Times, the company is now negotiating with Pennsylvania’s department of transportation to re-start public testing in that state, albeit with limitations: its cars would reportedly run on a “mile loop” between two of Uber’s Pittsburgh offices, won’t go faster than 25 m.p.h., and won’t operate in wet weather or at night.

Waymo has been perfecting its self-driving technology for the better part of a decade—nearly as long as Uber has existed as a company. It is no surprise, then, that Uber is encountering speed bumps in its quest to get self-driving cars right. Per the Times, the cars passed only 82 percent of track tests, even after Uber restricted the speed at which they drove. But internal e-mails obtained by the Times show that shortly thereafter,

Eric Meyhofer, who runs Uber’s autonomous vehicle group, pushed for a return to pervious speeds, to prove that the vehicles were “unequivocally worthy of being back on the road.”

Whether that will be the case in Pennsylvania remains to be seen. “As we have said many times before, our return is predicated on successfully passing our rigorous track tests and having our letter of authorization from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in hand,” Uber spokeswoman

Sarah Abboud told the Times. Even if it succeeds in getting another testing program up and running, Uber has its work cut out for it. Beyond playing catch-up with Waymo, it has a looming 2019 I.P.O. to wrangle, after a $1 billion loss in its most recent quarter. And under the current circumstances, Uber may not be able to count on autonomous vehicles to underwrite the expense of human drivers, as planned.

Uber is, at least, self-aware: “We did screw up” in earlier self-driving efforts, C.E.O.

Dara Khosrowshahi said in a staff meeting recently, according to the Times. But the self-driving market is racing ahead at a merciless pace. Lyft, Uber’s biggest ride-sharing competitor, confidentially filed for its I.P.O. this week, and has been working on a robotic ride-hailing service in Las Vegas with manufacturer Aptiv. General Motors acquired self-driving start-up Cruise two years ago and, with investments from Honda and SoftBank, has been testing its cars in places like San Francisco. And Congress is pushing to pass a bill permitting hundreds of thousands of self-driving cars to either be sold as personal vehicles or deployed as taxis. Despite the influx, getting customers on board may be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Waymo recently obtained a permit to operate its autonomous cars in Silicon Valley, a turn of events that unnerved some Palo Alto residents. “This is a burden on our city,” said one. “I’m not against technology, but we’re going to storm City Hall if these cars come to Palo Alto.”

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