Now that Uber finally got those California DMV permits it originally said it totally didn't need, it's back testing some driverless cars under DMV supervision in the state. That means we're due to hear how the cars are actually doing, as Uber will have to share info about the tests with the DMV. It's been suggested as a possible reason Uber was hesitant to seek the permits initially, perhaps because the information won't be flattering, and internal documents from Uber obtained by Recode backs up that theory.
Although Uber's 43 active self-driving cars in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California are driving more and more and therefore expected to learn and improve, they require a human driver to take over controls frequently. Looking at one week this month, the cars couldn't get more than an average of 0.8 miles before a person had to take over. A metric for that, called "miles per intervention," has declined "modestly" from last year, Recode writes. Critical interventions, in which humans must take over controls to avoid a more harmful event like running through an intersection with a red light and a pedestrian in the crosswalk, are thankfully down more sharply.
Even more critical intervention at Uber seems plausible, however, as Google has filed for an injunction to take Uber's driverless cars off the road, claiming that a former Google employee who started his own company, the self-driving truck business Otto, with stolen trade secrets and intellectual property from Google. When Uber bought Otto, a months-old company at the time last summer, for roughly $700 million, it came with Otto's self-driving tech in tow.
Despite a slew of scandals and PR debacles at Uber last month, Google's claims could end up being the most serious threat to the ride-hailing company's survival, or at least to their bottom line in the coming years.
In February, Google/Alphabet sued over allegedly stealing tech from its self-driving car division, now called Waymo. Bloomberg has a piece pondering that lawsuit and Otto CEO, current Uber employee, and former Googler Anthony Levandowski, with lots of interesting details.
Levandowski was reportedly a millionaire by the end of high school thanks to a web design firm he started at 16, and as a robotics whiz, he was an original member of Google's car team. But, writes Bloomberg,
At Google, Levandowski had been both a brilliant engineer and a divisive manager, with a reputation for flouting corporate norms and skirting rules to get cars on the road as quickly as possible. He was so controversial, according to several former and current employees, that when he was being considered to lead the car team, a group of engineers revolted, causing Alphabet CEO Larry Page to rethink the choice and install a different leader, Chris Urmson.
After Levandowski left Google, the software giant began an investigation of his departure, and now Google claims he used his company laptop to download 14,000 design files relating to Google's driverless car division. Levandowski has said this was in order for him to work from home. Two other Google-turned-Otto employees are also accused of stowing away with secret information.
The situation may have become clearer to Google on December 13, when an email from a LiDAR supplier mistakenly Waymo/Google an email showing suspiciously similar LiDAR to the one he had developed at Google, this time with Otto's name on it. At an all-hands meeting at Uber's Pittsburgh research center, Levandowski reportedly characterized Uber's LiDAR technology as "clean."
Kalanick and Levandowski are in this together: The Uber CEO sees a a kindred spirit in Levandowski, or as he put it, a "brother from another mother." Levandowski assents, saying "We think very similarly in terms of how do we get things out onto the world fastest."
That might include the hierarchy/philosophy, "Safety third," which employees of Uber at Otto's SF headquarters say was on stickers in OSHA orange in a tongue-in-cheek joke. As a commenter points out, that's a common Burning Man reference/refrain and sticker. No need to worry, then.