Hitting the Books: Why Travis Kalanick brought Uber into the self-driving car game


If you thought rocket science was tough, try training a computer to change lanes safely while driving a full-size SUV in heavy traffic. Autonomous vehicle developers have faced a myriad of similar challenges over the past three decades, but nothing, it seems, turns the wheels of innovation like some good old-fashioned competition – competition that DARPA was more than happy to provide.

In Driven: The race to create the autonomous car, Insider editor-in-chief and former Wired transport editor, Alex Davies takes the reader on an immersive tour of DARPA’s ‘Grand Challenges’ – the agency’s autonomous vehicle trials that have attracted top talent from academia and the private sector in a bid to boost the state autonomous vehicle technology – as well as profiles of many of the elite engineers who took part in the competitions.

In the excerpt below, however, Davies recalls how, in 2014, then-CEO Travis Kalanick drove Uber through the murky waters of autonomous vehicle technology, sparking a wave of acquisitions, takeovers. , furious R&D efforts and a fatal accidentonly to end up selling the division last December.

Simon and Schuster

Extract Driven: The race to create the autonomous car by Alex Davies. Copyright © 2021 by Alex Davies. Reproduced with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.


Travis Kalanick acknowledged that the self-driving car Google was creating was not just an opportunity for Uber. It was also a threat, and potentially deadly. Any competitor who doesn’t have to pay humans to drive their customers would have a major cost advantage. If someone got there before Uber, they could do what Uber did in taxis: lower their prices to drive Kalanick’s baby out of business. So, in early 2014, Kalanick tasked Uber Product Director Jeff Holden with studying the world of robotics and looking for a team that could rival the collection of DARPA Challenge veterans that Sebastian Thrun had assembled. . While there was certainly a lot of talent to be had – six teams had completed the Urban Challenge, after all – Holden quickly settled in Pittsburgh, the location of Carnegie Mellon University.

Uber took its first steps in late 2014 by hiring staff from a small Pittsburgh company called Carnegie Robotics. The company was run by John Bares, who started it in 2010, after spending most of his career at CMU. He had worked for Red Whittaker as an undergraduate student, helping to design and build the robots that entered the radioactive nuclear site at Three Mile Island, and then spent more than twenty years in college. When Bares got an email from Uber, he didn’t take it too seriously. Jeff Holden and his lieutenants said they wanted to build a self-driving car, but Bares and his colleagues said it would be much more difficult, costlier, and take longer than Uber thought. Holden persisted, making it clear that this was no lark: Uber would do whatever it takes to develop autonomous driving. In a series of meetings that fall, the two sides have come together. Once convinced of Holden’s seriousness, Bares and his team got excited about using their expertise to improve the lives of ordinary people. And Uber, with its existing driver fleets around the world, offered a natural route to enter the market: As robots mastered more types of roads and territories, they could, over many years, gradually take over. place of these humans.

The Uber contingent acknowledged that continuing Google’s efforts – nearly six years at this point – would require a serious investment. Kalanick was willing to do it, but he wouldn’t be just another Carnegie Robotics customer. He wanted an in-house team, fully focused on creating the technology that would keep Uber relevant in the age to come. He hired Bares and most of the staff at Carnegie Robotics, then licensed the company’s intellectual property. But Bares knew they would need more firepower, and he knew where to find it. He began talking to his former colleagues at the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, which he led for thirteen years before starting his own business.

Known as NREC (pronounced en-reck), the center had opened in 1996, housed in a large glass building on Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River, a twenty-minute drive from CMU’s main campus. It functioned as a mainly autonomous branch of the university, in a distinctly non-academic atmosphere. Its workers did not do the kind of basic research that they could turn into memories. They worked to transform the fundamental ideas established by their colleagues into commercial products. Success at NREC did not mean obtaining a tenure-track position. It meant landing a huge contract and building a team that could deliver whatever the client needed. A team didn’t mean a professor and a handful of graduate students working in a lab, but dozens of engineers taking what those labs produced and turning it into a commercial product that’s durable, reliable, and affordable enough to win over a real customer. to hand in real money. NREC was the home of Bryan Salesky, Chris Urmson’s reality research lieutenant on CMU’s Urban Challenge team.

During Bares’ thirteen years as a manager, NREC worked for everyone from the military to John Deere to fruit growers. For example, his strawberry sorter used machine learning techniques to recognize quality plants based on their size and health as they rolled along a conveyor belt, then used air jets to help them. sort into heaps. A team created a laser and GPS system that automated the tree counting process, so that orchard operators could keep an inventory. Another developed magnetic robots that ascended and descended the sides of warships, stripping their paint without damaging the steel. To remove paint from F-16 fighter jets, NREC manufactured a laser robot. The lab built autonomous forklifts and mining vehicles. His Pipeline Explorer scoured high pressure natural gas pipes, looking for problems. SmartCube and CognoCube monitored the animals involved in the drug testing.

The NREC robot you least wanted to run into in a dark alley was Crusher: a six-wheeled, hybrid-powered, fully autonomous military beast with a unique suspension that allowed it to pierce trenches and piles of rocks. True to its name, it had a strange ability to roll over cars. NREC created it for – who else – DARPA. In an era when venture capitalists had little interest in robotics, NREC was a vital force in bringing new technologies to market.

Nowhere else, Bares knew, would he find so many specialists not only to make very good robots, but also to make them work commercially. As 2014 drew to a close, Bares and Jeff Holden began talking to NREC employees about Uber’s new venture. It wasn’t a tough sales pitch. The NREC folks would continue to work on robotics, with a particular focus on autonomous driving on civilian streets. Uber, after raising an additional $ 1.2 billion that summer and desperate to catch up with Google, would double or even triple its salaries. And they wouldn’t have to move, or even adjust their movements. Uber, based in San Francisco, would open a new engineering center next to the NREC lab, in a former chocolate factory.

Over the years, NREC has seen many employees leave for other jobs. He had never seen dozens of them leave for the same concert at the same time. In February 2015, around 40 NREC employees, including the laboratory director, resigned. Together, under the leadership of John Bares, they formed a new branch of Uber, the Advanced Technologies Center. Almost thirty years after the blue Chevrolet van known as NavLab 1 explored the Carnegie Mellon campus at an octogenous walking pace, they were going to bring self-driving cars to Pittsburgh.

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