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Uber Tries to Speed Up Arrival of Robot Cars, Tells Drivers Not to Worry (Q&A)

Uber plays the long game with robot cars.

Uber would like you (and its drivers) to know that robots won’t replace humans just yet, despite the scare CEO Travis Kalanick gave on stage at the Code conference last year.

Uber would like you to remember that even as it announced today that it is setting up an autonomous car research outpost in Pittsburgh, confirming a report in TechCrunch.

What’s interesting is that in partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to work on self-driving cars, Uber is turning away from its two most obvious allies: its major investor Google, and the thousands of Uber drivers who power its services today.

The announcement comes after a Bloomberg scoop that Google is looking into launching a car-hailing business of its own, powered by self-driving cars. This could threaten its tight relationship with Uber. No word yet on whether Uber will consider asking Google chief legal officer David Drummond to resign from Uber’s board, as Bloomberg reported. A spokeswoman for Uber said Drummond is still currently on the board.

For now, Uber is taking the long view. In an interview with Re/code, CMU dean of computer science Andrew Moore explained that Uber will be supporting Carnegie Mellon research in robotics by sponsoring professors and student researchers, not just hiring them away to start its advanced technology center in Pittsburgh. He described Uber as “crazily innovative” and thus a natural partner for CMU.

Meanwhile, Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden, a former longtime Amazon executive, cast the deal as an example of the long-range thinking that the ecommerce giant is known for. Holden sought to alleviate Uber driver concerns that they’ll be replaced by robots. Sure, in the future, cars will drive themselves and human drivers will need to find some other way to make a buck. How far away is that future? Holden wouldn’t nail it down. (Kalanick asked his Twitter followers to check back in 2035.)

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation with Holden follows:

Why is Uber investing in autonomous cars now?
Jeff Holden: It’s actually part of a long-term strategy for the company. This is very much the same playbook we followed at Amazon. You have to be bold and planting seeds for many years into the future. If you’re going to have a future business, you have to build it. There’s technologies we can use more near-term like mapping technologies that feed directly into the core business and help the way we route people around cities — and way in the future there’s the expectation that autonomy will get to the point that cars can drive themselves, which is way, way down the road. It’s moving now, because if you don’t move now, when the future arrives it’s too late.

What does way, way down the road mean?

This is many years. The way I look at this is somewhere between research and engineering. No one in the world is ready to put autonomous cars on the road and push the go button.

What does this investment mean for Uber drivers?
As far as our drivers are concerned our message to them is: this a completely different time scale. Everything we represented to drivers yesterday, we represent today, tomorrow and into the foreseeable future. We give drivers an opportunity to earn a great living with incredibly flexible terms. What we’re really excited about ultimately is transportation as a service decongesting cities and greening cities. That’s really the center of our windshield, no pun intended, and this stuff is really a long-term investment for the company.

How do you imagine the future of autonomous cars to play into how Uber operates?
It’s hard to speculate at this point.

Would you imagine building a car?
It’s possible. There’s a lot of possibilities.

So Google is the best-known developer of autonomous cars, and also a big partner and investor of yours, and David Drummond is a board member. So can you put partnering with CMU in the context of your Google relationship?
The Google relationship has many facets to it. I’m sure you’ve seen the integration we’ve done with Google Maps. We very much expect the partnership to continue and be strong for the future, this thing aside. So no real change in the relationship.

For me, this deal is surprising.
It’s very natural from the perspective of thinking about the long term of where the company goes the best companies in the world invest in those visions instead of waiting them to show up. But just to reiterate, what is occupying the vast majority of Uber’s time is the driver-rider business, and that’s growing at an explosive rate. We’re going to be bringing many many many more drivers onto the platform for the foreseeable future.

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