Uber Traded Away Its In-House Self-Driving Effort

Perhaps the best-known ridesharing service, Uber has grown rapidly over the last decade. Since its founding in 2009, it has expanded into markets around the globe, and entered the world of food delivery and even helicopter transport.

One of the main headline research areas for the company was the development of autonomous cars, which would revolutionize the company’s business model by eliminating the need to pay human drivers. However, as of December, the company has announced that it it spinning off its driverless car division in a deal reportedly worth $4 billion, though that’s all on paper — Uber is trading its autonomous driving division, and a promise to invest a further $400 million, in return for a 26% share in the self-driving tech company Aurora Innovation.

Playing A Long Game

Uber’s self-driving efforts have been undertaken in close partnership with Volvo in recent years.

Uber’s driverless car research was handled by the internal Advanced Technologies Group, made up of 1,200 employees dedicated to working on the new technology. The push to eliminate human drivers from the ride-sharing business model was a major consideration for investors of Uber’s Initial Public Offering on the NYSE in 2019. The company is yet to post a profit, and reducing the amount of fares going to human drivers would make it much easier for the company to achieve that crucial goal.

However, Uber’s efforts have not been without incident. Tragically, in 2018, a development vehicle running in autonomous mode hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. This marked the first pedestrian fatality caused by an autonomous car, and led to the suspension of on-road testing by the company. The incident revealed shortcomings in the company’s technology and processes, and was a black mark on the company moving forward.

The Advanced Technology Group (ATG) has been purchased by a Mountain View startup by the name of Aurora Innovation, Inc. The company counts several self-driving luminaries amongst its cofounders. Chris Urmson, now CEO, was a technical leader during his time at Google’s self-driving research group. Drew Bagnell worked on autonomous driving at Uber, and Sterling Anderson came to the startup from Tesla’s Autopilot program. The company was founded in 2017, and counts Hyundai and Amazon among its venture capital investors.

Aurora could also have links with Toyota, which also invested in ATG under Uber’s ownership in 2019. Unlike Uber, which solely focused on building viable robotaxis for use in limited geographical locations, the Aurora Driver, the core of the company’s technology, aims to be adaptable to everything from “passenger sedans to class-8 trucks”.

Aurora has been developing self-driving technology to handle real-world situations since its founding in 2017. Being able to master the challenges of a crowded city will be key to succeeding in the marketplace.

Getting rid of ATG certainly spells the end of Uber’s in-house autonomous driving effort, but it doesn’t mean they’re getting out of the game. Holding a stake in Aurora, Uber still stands to profit from early investment, and will retain access to the technology as it develops. At the same time, trading ATG off to an outside firm puts daylight between the rideshare company and any negative press from future testing incidents.

Even if Aurora only retains 75% of ATG’s 1,200 employees, it’s doubling in size, and will be worth keeping an eye on in the future.

Firmware Hints That Tesla’s Driver Camera Is Watching

Currently, if you want to use the Autopilot or Self-Driving modes on a Tesla vehicle you need to keep your hands on the wheel at all times. That’s because, ultimately, the human driver is still the responsible party. Tesla is adamant about the fact that functions which allow the car to steer itself within a lane, avoid obstacles, and intelligently adjust its speed to match traffic all constitute a driver assistance system. If somebody figures out how to fool the wheel sensor and take a nap while their shiny new electric car is hurtling down the freeway, they want no part of it.

So it makes sense that the company’s official line regarding the driver-facing camera in the Model 3 and Model Y is that it’s there to record what the driver was doing in the seconds leading up to an impact. As explained in the release notes of the June 2020 firmware update, Tesla owners can opt-in to providing this data:

Help Tesla continue to develop safer vehicles by sharing camera data from your vehicle. This update will allow you to enable the built-in cabin camera above the rearview mirror. If enabled, Tesla will automatically capture images and a short video clip just prior to a collision or safety event to help engineers develop safety features and enhancements in the future.

But [green], who’s spent the last several years poking and prodding at the Tesla’s firmware and self-driving capabilities, recently found some compelling hints that there’s more to the story. As part of the vehicle’s image recognition system, which usually is tasked with picking up other vehicles or pedestrians, they found several interesting classes that don’t seem necessary given the official explanation of what the cabin camera is doing.

If all Tesla wanted was a few seconds of video uploaded to their offices each time one of their vehicles got into an accident, they wouldn’t need to be running image recognition configured to detect distracted drivers against it in real-time. While you could make the argument that this data would be useful to them, there would still be no reason to do it in the vehicle when it could be analyzed as part of the crash investigation. It seems far more likely that Tesla is laying the groundwork for a system that could give the vehicle another way of determining if the driver is paying attention.

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A Car Phone — No, Not That Kind

Autonomous vehicle development is a field of technology that remains relatively elusive to the average hacker, what with the needing a whole car and all. Instead of having to deal with such a large scale challenge, [Piotr Sokólski] has instead turned to implementing the same principles on the scale of a small radio-controlled car.

Wanting to lower the barrier of entry for developing software for self-driving cars, he based his design off of something you’re likely to have lying around already: a smartphone. He cites the Google Cardboard project for his inspiration, with how it made VR more accessible without needing expensive hardware. The phone is able to control the actuators and wheel motors through a custom board, which it talks to via a Bluetooth connection. And since the camera points up in the way the phone is mounted in the frame, [Piotr] came up with a really clever solution of using a mirror as a periscope so the car can see in front of itself.

The software here has two parts, though the phone app one does little more than just serve as an interface by sending off a video feed to be processed. The whole computer vision processing is done on the desktop part, and it allows [Piotr] to do some fun things like using reinforcement learning to keep the car driving as long as possible without crashing. This is achieved by making the algorithm observe the images coming from the phone and giving it negative reward whenever an accelerometer detects a collision. Another experiment he’s done is use a QR tag on top of the car, visible to a fixed overhead camera, to determine the car’s position in the room.

This might not be the first time someone’s made a scaled down model of a self-driving vehicle, though it’s one of the most cleverly-designed ones, and it’s certainly much simpler than trying to do it on a full-sized car in your garage.

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A Million Zombie Taxis By 2020? It’s Not Going To Happen

The tech world has a love for Messianic figures, usually high-profile CEOs of darling companies whose words are hung upon and combed through for hidden meaning, as though they had arrived from above to our venture-capital-backed prophet on tablets of stone. In the past it has been Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, now it seems to be Elon Musk who has received this treatment. Whether his companies are launching a used car into space, shooting things down tubes in the desert, or synchronised-landing used booster rockets, everybody’s talking about him. He’s a showman whose many pronouncements are always soon eclipsed by bigger ones to keep his public on the edge of their seats, and now we’ve been suckered in too, which puts us on the spot, doesn’t it.

Your Johnny Cab is almost here

The latest pearl of Muskology came in a late April presentation: that by 2020 there would be a million Tesla electric self-driving taxis on the road. It involves a little slight-of-hand in assuming that a fleet of existing Teslas will be software upgraded to be autonomous-capable and that some of them will somehow be abandoned by their current owners and end up as taxis, but it’s still a bold claim by any standard.

Here at Hackaday, we want to believe, but we’re not so sure. It’s time to have a little think about it all. It’s the start of May, so 2020 is about 7 months away. December 2020 is about 18 months away, so let’s give Tesla that timescale. 18 months to put a million self-driving taxis on the road. Can the company do it? Let’s find out.

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Was The Self Driving Car Invented In The 1980s?

The news is full of self-driving cars and while there is some bad news, most of it is pretty positive. It seems a foregone conclusion that it is just a matter of time before calling for an Uber doesn’t involve another person. But according to a recent article, [Ernst Dickmanns] — a German aerospace engineer —  built three autonomous vehicles starting in 1986 and culminating with on-the-road demonstrations in 1994 for Daimler.

It is hard to imagine what had to take place to get a self-driving car in 1986. The article asserts that you need computer analysis of video at 10 frames a second minimum. In the 1980s doing a single frame in 10 minutes was considered an accomplishment. [Dickmanns’] vehicles borrowed tricks from how humans drive. They focused on a small area at any one moment and tried to ignore things that were not relevant.

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Self-Driven: Uber And Tesla

Self-driving cars have been in the news a lot in the past two weeks. Uber’s self-driving taxi hit and killed a pedestrian on March 18, and just a few days later a Tesla running in “autopilot” mode slammed into a road barrier at full speed, killing the driver. In both cases, there was a human driver who was supposed to be watching over the shoulder of the machine, but in the Uber case the driver appears to have been distracted and in the Tesla case, the driver had hands off the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the crash. How safe are self-driving cars?

Trick question! Neither of these cars were “self-driving” in at least one sense: both had a person behind the wheel who was ultimately responsible for piloting the vehicle. The Uber and Tesla driving systems aren’t even comparable. The Uber taxi does routing and planning, knows the speed limit, and should be able to see red traffic lights and stop at them (more on this below!). The Tesla “Autopilot” system is really just the combination of adaptive cruise control and lane-holding subsystems, which isn’t even enough to get it classified as autonomous in the state of California. Indeed, it’s a failure of the people behind the wheels, and the failure to properly train those people, that make the pilot-and-self-driving-car combination more dangerous than a human driver alone would be.

A self-driving Uber Volvo XC90, San Francisco.

You could still imagine wanting to dig into the numbers for self-driving cars’ safety records, even though they’re heterogeneous and have people playing the mechanical turk. If you did, you’d be sorely disappointed. None of the manufacturers publish any of their data publicly when they don’t have to. Indeed, our glimpses into data on autonomous vehicles from these companies come from two sources: internal documents that get leaked to the press and carefully selected statistics from the firms’ PR departments. The state of California, which requires the most rigorous documentation of autonomous vehicles anywhere, is another source, but because Tesla’s car isn’t autonomous, and because Uber refused to admit that its car is autonomous to the California DMV, we have no extra insight into these two vehicle platforms.

Nonetheless, Tesla’s Autopilot has three fatalities now, and all have one thing in common — all three drivers trusted the lane-holding feature well enough to not take control of the wheel in the last few seconds of their lives. With Uber, there’s very little autonomous vehicle performance history, but there are leaked documents and a pattern that makes Uber look like a risk-taking scofflaw with sub-par technology that has a vested interest to make it look better than it is. That these vehicles are being let loose on public roads, without extra oversight and with other traffic participants as safety guinea pigs, is giving the self-driving car industry and ideal a black eye.

If Tesla’s and Uber’s car technologies are very dissimilar, the companies have something in common. They are both “disruptive” companies with mavericks at the helm that see their fates hinging on getting to a widespread deployment of self-driving technology. But what differentiates Uber and Tesla from Google and GM most is, ironically, their use of essentially untrained test pilots in their vehicles: Tesla’s in the form of consumers, and Uber’s in the form of taxi drivers with very little specific autonomous-vehicle training. What caused the Tesla and Uber accidents may have a lot more to do with human factors than self-driving technology per se.

You can see we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Read on!

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Uber Has An Autonomous Fatality

You have doubtlessly heard the news. A robotic Uber car in Arizona struck and killed [Elaine Herzberg] as she crossed the street. Details are sketchy, but preliminary reports indicate that the accident was unavoidable as the woman crossed the street suddenly from the shadows at night.

If and when more technical details emerge, we’ll cover them. But you can bet this is going to spark a lot of conversation about autonomous vehicles. Given that Hackaday readers are at the top of the technical ladder, it is likely that your thoughts on the matter will influence your friends, coworkers, and even your politicians. So what do you think?

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