Autonomous truck projects from Waymo and Tesla are poised to pick up speed now that Uber is out of the race, but worries remain over how the technology will impact jobs.
On Monday, Uber announced that it would shutter its self-driving truck program to focus on self-driving cars instead, our sister site CNET reported.
"We recently took the important step of returning to public roads in Pittsburgh, and as we look to continue that momentum, we believe having our entire team's energy and expertise focused on this effort is the best path forward," Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, said in a statement.
Uber, while primarily known for its ride-sharing service, had invested in self-driving truck technology as well as Uber Freight, an app that matches carriers and drivers with loads to haul. The company acquired self-driving truck company Otto in 2016. In 2017, Uber laid out a vision for a future of trucking that involved a mixed-fleet system where truck drivers and self-driving trucks worked alongside one another. Uber was testing the autonomous trucks in Arizona, and announced plans to expand Uber Freight to six new US markets that year.
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Uber Freight will continue operation, however, the company said, as it is already being used around the country.
The move toward a self-driving cars focus comes after an Uber operating in autonomous mode hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in March.
Abandoning the self-driving truck project also appears to be part of the fallout from the legal battles between Uber and Alphabet, said Gartner research director Mike Ramsey. For those unfamiliar, Alphabet sued Uber, claiming that former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski stole files for Uber when he left Google in 2016 to start Otto, which Uber then acquired. The companies reached a settlement in February, with Uber agreeing to pay Alphabet the equivalent of $245 million in equity.
Uber fired Levandowski in May. "With his and others' departures, the team may not have been as strong and the effort to make the self-driving trucks may have been a distraction as the company tried to put its car effort on track," Ramsey said.
However, the autonomous truck space has many competitors, including Waymo and Tesla, that will continue advancing the technology, Ramsey said. Waymo announced work in the self-driving truck realm in 2017, and has since been testing its fleet in California and Arizona. Meanwhile, Tesla is working on self-driving electric semi-trucks that can move in "platoons" behind a designated lead vehicle.
"It is one of the hotter areas of investment in mobility today," Ramsey said.
Autonomous trucks are likely to roll out faster than cars due to the potential labor savings costs, experts say. If the technology advances, it's likely to have a major impact on jobs for America's 3.5 million professional truck drivers, as well as truck manufacturers.
Overall, Uber's news is more of a reflection on the company itself than on the self-driving truck industry, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles.
"Many companies are working specifically on truck automation, and many more are working on underlying technologies that could ultimately have applications in trucking," Walker Smith said. "Even though the companies will change, this kind of work will continue. And it's important to remember that automation remains a difficult challenge in every application."