Bloomberg Feature: ‘Did Uber Steal the Driverless Future From Google?’

Fascinating feature by Max Chafkin and Mark Bergen for Bloomberg Businessweek:

As Google’s car project grew, a debate raged inside the company, reflecting a broader dispute about the direction of autonomous vehicles: Should the tech come gradually and be added to cars with drivers (through features like automatic parking and highway autopilot) or all at once (for instance, a fleet of fully autonomous cars operating in a city center)? Urmson, a former Carnegie Mellon professor, preferred the latter approach, arguing that incremental innovations might, paradoxically, make cars less safe. Levandowski believed otherwise and argued that Google should sell self-driving kits that could be retrofitted on cars, former colleagues say.

Urmson won out, and according to two former employees, Levandowski sulked openly. After one dispute between the two, Levandowski stopped coming to work for months, devoting his time to his side projects. This didn’t stop Page and Brin from discreetly acquiring 510 Systems and Anthony’s Robots for roughly $50 million in 2011.

Seems like a bizarre company culture that allows an executive to just stop coming to work for months at a time.

Levandowski seemed to struggle in other ways as well. In December, Uber dispatched 16 self-driving cars, with safety drivers, in San Francisco without seeking a permit from the California DMV. The test went poorly — on the first day, a self-driving car ran a red light, and the DMV ordered Uber to halt its program in the state. The company suffered further embarrassment when a New York Times article, citing leaked documents, suggested that Uber’s explanation for the traffic violation — that it had been caused by human error — wasn’t complete. The car malfunctioned, and the driver failed to stop it.

The misdirection came as no surprise to the Uber employees who’d spent time at Otto’s San Francisco headquarters. Someone there had distributed stickers — in OSHA orange — with a tongue-in-cheek slogan: “Safety third.”

“Safety third”. Hilarious.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

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