Uber Kills its Autonomous Truck Plans 2 Years After Buying Self-Driving Trucking Startup Otto

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【Summary】Uber announced today it is shutting down it operations for the development of self-driving trucks. Instead the ride-hailing company will focus its efforts on self-driving cars.

Eric Walz    Sep 05, 2018 4:12 PM PT
Uber Kills its Autonomous Truck Plans 2 Years After Buying Self-Driving Trucking Startup Otto

Back in 2016, Uber's self-driving trucking arm Otto was one of the first companies to debut a fully autonomous long-haul truck. That October, Uber made headlines when Otto partnered with Anheuser Busch and autonomously delivered a truck full of 2000 cases of beer 120 miles across Colorado.

The trip was made with much fanfare. Budweiser beer, which is owned by Anheuser Busch, even commemorated the event with a limited run of specially designed Budweiser beer cans displaying the Otto logo.

Now the ride-hailing giant announced it is shutting down it operations for the development of self-driving trucks. Instead the ride-hailing company will focus its efforts on self-driving cars.

Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber's Advanced Technologies Group (Uber ATG) made the announcement in an email to employees that was obtained by TechCrunch.

"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.

"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 Uber 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."

otto can.jpg

A commemorative Budweiser been can with Otto's logo

Uber acquisition of Otto is a complicated story. Otto was co-founded by Anthony Levandowski, Ron Lior and Claire Delaunay and others. All of whom worked on Google's self-driving car project.

After spending nearly a decade at Google working on its self-driving car program, Levandowski abruptly resigned in January 2016. Just days after he resigned, Levandowski announced his new self-driving truck company named Otto. However, Levandowski was accused of stealing trade secrets from Google that allowed him to jumpstart his autonomous trucking company.

In August of 2016, just six month after forming Otto, Levandowski sold his company to Uber for a reported sum of $680 million, although that exact number is believed to be much lower. Levandowski was then hired to lead Uber's own autonomous driving program.

"Together, we now have one of the strongest autonomous engineering groups in the world," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a blog post at the time. However, things began to fall apart quickly.

In February of 2017, Google self-driving arm, now called Waymo filed a lawsuit against Levandowski, accusing Uber and Otto of using "a custom lidar system with the same characteristics as Waymo's proprietary system," Waymo wrote in its lawsuit at the time.

The lawsuit also made specific claims that Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 confidential files with Waymo's IP shortly before his resignation.

In May 2017, Levandowski was fired from Uber for failing to cooperate with the investigation or testify at trial. The ensuing controversy also contributed to the ousting of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick weeks later, in June of 2017. Kalanick was accused of secretly meeting with Levandowski before Otto's acquisition by Uber.

Uber and Waymo's lawyers settled the case in February 2018 for around $245 million in Uber stock with no admission of guilt from Uber.

Uber had big plans for Otto and self-driving trucks. Uber hoped to launch an autonomous trucking service. The company set up shop in an unassuming garage build in downtown San Francisco, where Otto semi-trucks were spotted leaving and entering the garage on a daily basis.

It was Otto's trucks that transported Uber's self-driving Volvo SUVs to Arizona in December 2016, after the state of California revoked the registrations of Uber's vehicles for failing to apply for the state mandated autonomous testing permit. At the time, Uber claimed it didn't require the permit.


Anthony Levandowski and Ron Lior, two of the co-founders of Otto

Uber's entire autonomous driving project has been under intense scrutiny since March, when one of its self-driving Volvo's fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona. Days after the accident, Uber's new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi ordered a ‘top to bottom review of Uber's entire self-driving program. Uber is planning on resuming operations in Pittsburgh this summer.

By killing off its autonomous truck development, Uber's immediate focus is on getting its self-driving car development back on track.

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