Uber’s Self-Driving Car Woes Squeezed Out Its Trucks

Uber’s self-driving truck program, which the company is shutting down to focus on a careful relaunching of its autonomous car tests, is the latest casualty of the fatal crash that took Uber AVs off the road in March.

The company said on Monday, July 30, that it would discontinue the program, which was launched last year and got as far as putting self-driving long-haul trucks on rural highways in Arizona.

“We’ve decided to stop development on our self-driving truck program and move forward exclusively with 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,” said Eric Meyhofer, head of the Uber Advanced Technologies Group, in an emailed statement.

The stakes are high for Uber’s return to public roads with autonomous test cars because of the fatal crash in Tempe, Ariz., that took the life of a pedestrian and rocked the self-driving vehicle industry. In its aftermath, the company halted both autonomous car and truck testing.

Uber executives have said self-driving cars are key to the future of the company’s core ride-hailing business. Its autonomous test cars recently returned to the streets of Pittsburgh under manual control, Uber told TU Automotive this week. This is likely to be the first step in a gradual effort to relaunch testing near Uber’s development centers and restore public confidence in the program.

Autonomous trucking was less central to Uber’s business but might have become lucrative.

The company envisioned self-driving trucks covering the long-distance routes between metropolitan areas, where the miles are monotonous and the hours are long, and then handing off their loads to human drivers who could navigate more urban areas and deliver the goods to local warehouses.

Uber has decided it doesn’t need to immediately develop self-driving trucks to remain competitive in freight logistics, the company told TU Automotive. It will continue the Uber Freight service, which matches up shippers and carriers using an app similar to the company’s ride-hailing system. Uber Freight has expanded from three initial markets to the whole continental US, and its load volume is doubling every quarter, the company said.

While autonomous passenger cars tend to draw more attention, self-driving trucks could offer a bigger payoff in the near-to-medium term. A recent report by Allied Market Research estimated the global autonomous truck market would grow to $1.7 billion in annual revenue by 2025. A shortage of professional truck drivers in some countries, including the US, may help to drive the industry.

Removing drivers from the cabs of long-haul trucks, or even just letting them give up driving duties, might cut costs significantly. In addition, self-driving trucks could save fuel and trip time by stopping less often, and wouldn’t be constrained by rules governing the hours that drivers work, proponents say.

But Uber faced a wave of competitors for this opportunity, including startups such as Embark and Starsky Robotics, as well as bigger players, including Waymo and Tesla.

The closure of the truck operation severs one more link to an earlier era for the company, under founder Travis Kalanick, which CEO Dara Khosrowshahi appears anxious to put behind him. The business grew out of Otto, an autonomous truck company founded by former Waymo executive Anthony Levandowski, which Uber acquired in 2016 for as much as $680 million. That acquisition was a key point in Waymo’s multibillion-dollar trade-secrets lawsuit that Uber settled earlier this year for about $245 million.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *