FutureStructure

Uber Drives Toward Autonomous Future, Despite Controversy

Mass urbanization is one of the defining trends of our generation.

by Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News / June 5, 2017
Uber's self-driving car in San Francisco Uber

(TNS) -- Raquel Urtasun’s first day of work as Uber’s newest self-driving car leader came in the midst of a major upheaval at the ride-hailing company.

Facing a potentially devastating lawsuit accusing the startup of stealing rival Waymo’s autonomous vehicle technology, Uber also has seen an exodus of top talent and a court order barring its top self-driving car engineer from working on a key piece of technology. But when Urtasun started May 1 as head of Uber’s new self-driving car division in Toronto, she was focused on the big picture — putting autonomous vehicles on every road.

She’ll start small, though. Her first step will be scaling up the Toronto team she’s now in charge of, and traveling to Uber’s other Advanced Technologies Group offices to get to know her new co-workers.

Urtasun responded to this new organization’s questions via email. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q What do you think transportation will look like 10 years from now?

A Our ultimate hope for the future is that we can turn every journey into a shared one using a combination of ride-sharing (both in the traditional sense and via self-driving) and mass transit, because sharing will be a cheaper and more convenient alternative to individual car ownership.

Mass urbanization is one of the defining trends of our generation. There is so much that is great about living in a city today. And by embracing shared modes of transportation we can make all cities less congested and polluted; with more space for people and parks; and where everyone, wherever they live and whatever their income, has access to affordable, reliable transportation.

Q When can we expect fully autonomous Ubers that can be driven safely on city streets without a human behind the wheel?

A It’s still very early days. Self-driving Ubers have vehicle operators in the front seat for safety, as they require human monitoring and intervention in conditions like bad weather.

Q What role do you see Uber playing in the future of transportation?

A Even when these technology issues are fixed, we believe ride-sharing will be a mix for a long time — with rides provided by drivers and self-driving Ubers. This is because of the limits of self-driving global software and the skyrocketing demand for better transportation that drivers are uniquely able to solve. And the past has shown that technology creates new work opportunities, while disrupting existing ones.

Q What’s the biggest challenge that stands in the way today of mass implementation of driverless cars?

A One of the biggest challenges we have is changing the way people think about cars and the way we’ve traditionally designed our cities around them. There are at least 1 billion cars in the world today. But the problem is not so much cars themselves. It’s how we use them: individually.

All of this individual car use comes at considerable public cost to the environment and public safety. And sadly, that’s just just 4 percent of the problem, because cars sit idle 96 percent of the time in the U.S. alone. That’s where ride-sharing comes in and why it’s so important.

We’re already seeing attitudes begin to change. In America, 10 percent of Uber riders under 30 say that they’ve either given up their car or are no longer planning to buy one. And we’re just getting started.

Q Most of Uber’s tech and leadership roles go to men, as is the case in many tech companies — women fill 15 percent of tech roles and 22 percent of leadership roles at Uber — and the company has come under fire recently over allegations of sexual harassment. What does it mean to you to be a woman joining the team in this context?

A I joined Uber because of the team they’ve built. Everyone is working toward the same goal as mine of making self-driving a reality. By taking a leadership role I hope to inspire more women to work in this domain and take leadership roles.

Q There’s been some turmoil in Uber’s self-driving car program recently, with the departure of several key people, a lawsuit accusing Uber of stealing Waymo’s self-driving technology, and Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the heart of that lawsuit, stepping down from the head of the Uber team. Why did you decide to come on board in the midst of this uncertainty, and how do you think those factors will impact your work?

A I’m focused on developing the software that allows self-driving cars to “see” — recognizing objects so they can navigate the world smoothly and safely.

I’m confident in the team’s ability to succeed in implementing self-driving technology at scale. The more I got to know the team, the more sure I was that ATG was the right place for me. The promise of self-driving is core to Uber’s mission of providing reliable transportation, everywhere, for everyone. While it won’t happen overnight, self-driving will be an important part of the future of transportation — a future which we intend to lead.

Q What will Uber’s new self-driving group in Toronto look like, and how will it fit into the company’s larger plans?

A Toronto has emerged as an important hub of artificial intelligence research, which is critical to the future of transportation. By setting up shop at the MaRS Discovery District, we hope to draw from the region’s impressive talent pool as we grow, helping the dozens of researchers we plan to hire stay connected to the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor. I joined ATG with eight of my students and postdocs I’ve been working with for several years, and we’ll be hiring several dozens more folks to come aboard. We’ll work with our counterparts across the U.S. to bring our self-driving Uber pilot program to scale.

Q Will Uber roll out a self-driving car pilot program on Toronto streets?

A While I’d love to bring passengers operations to Toronto, we’re not planning to launch a self-driving Uber pilot at this time.

©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.