Uber’s Woes Signal Tougher Times for Autonomous Cars

As Uber faces continued fallout from last week’s fatal crash involving one of its self-driving cars in Arizona, the futuristic autonomous driving industry may be coming down to earth.”I think it’s going to make a lot of companies pull back, to a certain degree,” said Doug Newcomb, a car technology expert at Newcomb Communications and Consulting. That trend will reverse in time because the technology’s potential is so great, he added.

Nowhere has the chilling effect been stronger than at Uber itself.

The company temporarily halted testing nationwide after the crash, pending an investigation of the incident by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and others. But Uber’s work has since faced further setbacks, and the company has come under media scrutiny that has raised questions about its approach to autonomous technology and even the future of its program.

In late 2016, as Uber switched its test fleet from Ford Fusion sedans to Volvo XC90 SUVs, it began equipping each test vehicle with just one Lidar system, Reuters reported this week.

The Ford sedans had been outfitted with seven Lidar units, which use lasers to detect objects around a vehicle even in the dark. Though the single lidar on the Volvos covers 360 degrees, it has a blind zone close to the ground where pedestrians might be, Reuters reported. In the fatal crash in Tempe, Ariz., an XC90 struck and killed a pedestrian who was walking her bike across a wide street at night. Uber declined to comment on the Lidar issue as the crash investigation continues.

Earlier in the week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s permission to test autonomous cars on public roads. That was an abrupt reversal, as Ducey had been one of the strongest backers of the technology among elected officials. In fact, The Guardian alleged on Wednesday that Ducey let Uber secretly begin testing self-driving cars on public roads in 2016 with limited oversight by officials. Emails released by the governor’s office revealed a cozy relationship with Uber that included an aide to the governor using Uber’s offices while visiting San Francisco, according to Reuters.

The governor’s office has denied any secret testing took place.

Also this week, Uber itself pulled back from autonomous testing in California, declining to renew its permit, which expires March 31.

The wave of allegations against Uber only adds to image problems that have hounded the company through several scandals last year and an embarrassing trade-secrets trial last month. And an article posted Tuesday on the news site Ars Technica argues that Uber should give up its autonomous-car testing for good and sell the whole project.

A company such as Uber, which lost more than $1 billion per quarter last year, may not be able to afford the massive investment and years-long commitment that’s required to build its own self-driving technology, Ars reporter Timothy B. Lee argues. Outfitting each test car is an expensive proposition, with Lidar systems alone costing thousands of dollars per unit.

Last week’s accident has brought home some of the hard realities of developing a brand-new technology and bringing it to market.

On Tuesday, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang pushed the promise of his company’s AI hardware and software for self-driving cars but repeatedly cautioned that such vehicles wouldn’t hit the market for two to three years. He predicted the Tempe incident would boost investment in development, including testing in photorealistic road simulations.

Nvidia, a supplier to Uber, has also paused its real-world testing, as has Toyota Research Institute. The city of Boston conducted a safety review of two startups testing vehicles there, including one that works with Lyft, before renewing their permissions.

Tighter regulation may be on the way, though probably in the form of more documentation and auditing requirements, despite the dramatic language some politicians may use, said Timothy Carone, an autonomous systems expert who teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

More regulation from Washington, which has set vehicle policies for decades, would actually help the technology thrive by providing guidance, according to Newcomb. There has been little federal action since early 2016, he said.

“It’s time for the feds to step up and do something. There is no federal policy.”

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


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