Uber has revealed its all-new Uber ATG self-driving truck, which is essentially a refined version of the Otto system that it bought in a big-money deal last year, in a bid to get some positive press.
Uber has been in the media for all the wrong reasons of late. The court case with Waymo over copyright infringement was the final nail in the coffin of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, who resigned recently. A new leader has to come in soon, but right now Uber is swimming against the tide of public opinion.
The company that was once the darling of the tech world has to rebuild its reputation and confidence. New products like the Volvo truck retrofitted with highway autopilot are a good start.
Waymo claims Otto buyout was part of a sham
But the Waymo affair has even cast a shadow over this massive buyout, saying it was merely a means to an end. The Google subsidiary argued that buying Otto for $680 million was basically the asking price for its stolen technology, which sat in the possession of Otto founder Anthony Levandowski.
Uber has taken a simple step to dodge the issue with its new self-driving trucks. Most of Waymo’s anger is developed at Uber’s LiDAR system. So, for the truck, Uber has simply fitted an off-the-peg, 64-channel Velodyne unit.
“It’s an off-the-shelf system from a third-party, so it’s actually separate from some of the things at issue in the Waymo suit about us developing our own LiDAR, it’s a totally separate product,” said Alan Woodrow,Product Manager at Uber Advanced Technologies Group.
“This is totally independent of that. It’s always been part of the plan to integrate the Otto technology with the ATG technology. The Otto stack actually didn’t use 64-channel LiDAR at all.”
New hardware for smoother progress
Uber has put more work into the sensors, hardware and software behind closed doors, after the team set a record for the longest continuous journey by a driverless and autonomous semi trailer truck last year.
The ride-hailing giant is marketing this in a similar vein to Tesla’s Autopilot. It claims it offers Level 2 autonomy and is more of a driver assist function that should smooth out progress and make the truck more efficient, rather than taking over entirely.
Uber’s system promises to keep the trucks in their lanes, which is a safety feature that will benefit everybody. Adaptive cruise control should also lower fuel consumption, which counts in the haulage industry.
Safety the big issue for Uber ATG
But the biggest benefit that Uber ATG is pushing is safety. Trucks are still responsible for 70% of product deliveries in America, so anything that can eliminate emergency braking, a jackknife that can follow a simple gust of wind and other issues has to be a good thing.
The highway network is relatively predictable in terms of obstacles and other traffic and Uber’s other technology will surely help drive this forward into a fully autonomous system before long. Then it’s down to the companies to convince the regulators and the public that driverless trucks are a good idea.
Waymo war comes to an end
The way with Waymo and Uber is still raging in the background and now the tide is turning, slightly. Uber has an air of guilt, but the Judge has already told Waymo it has not provided a smoking gun when it comes to the theft of trade secrets.
It is a generally accepted fact that Levandowski took more than 14,000 documents when he left Waymo to start Otto. Waymo claims to have proof that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick knew all about the stolen information and incorporated it into the company’s R&D work.
Clearly the Judge is not convinced.
An injunction is unlikely
There is still the suggestion that the Judge could grant an injunction and prevent Uber testing its autonomous cars and ride hailing schemes at a number of pre-agreed sites around the country. But, if Uber simply buys the Velodyne system, then that could well nip this issue in the bud.
Uber fired Levandowski, Kalanick fell on his sword under a barrage of criticism and now the company has replaced the only really contentious item anyway. The stage is set for a judge to draw a line under this one.
Uber will get fined and it may well be hefty, but there shouldn’t be any lasting consequences.