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Less bragging, more action: Uber & Tesla’s new driverless car strategies

Focus on road safety: Tesla's new priority. (Photo: Tesla)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Uber and Tesla change their mind, Waymo enters another sector and a start-up presents a vehicle that talks to you: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

Following Waymo, two other big players developed a new sense of reality last week. Uber has often been criticized for a lack of transparency. But when they acquired autonomous trucking start-up Otto in August 2016, they were fairly open about their motives. “If Uber wants to catch up to Google and be the leader in autonomy, we have to have the best minds,” then-CEO Travis Kalanick said.

It wasn’t long before Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber for allegedly stealing trade secrets. Having crippled Uber’s development efforts for more than a year, the trial ended with a million dollar settlement in February. Last week, Uber announced they would shut down their self-driving truck project entirely. After the fatal crash of an Uber vehicle in March, the ride hailing company concentrates on the development of driverless cars. “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, told TechCrunch.

This is an admission of failure. Developing autonomous trucks put Uber on the wrong track, binding precious resources. Yet it may also be an act of liberation: Uber can now focus on developing safe driverless cars.

In a similar move, Tesla also had a moment of reflection last week. Since 2016, CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly promised that a Tesla would soon drive fully autonomously from Los Angeles to New York. Now Musk announced that Tesla will put their “coast-to-coast” drive on hold. “Better for the Autopilot team to focus on safety and existing features,” he said according to The Verge. Musk also unveiled that an improved version of the level 2 automation Autopilot feature will be released in September. Commenting on the company’s quarterly figures, Efraim Levy, an analyst with investment research firm CFRA, said: “We like the more muted tone of the company’s outlook, with the absence of unnecessary new stretch goals. Perhaps it reflects a more cautious Elon Musk.” I have nothing to add.

Friend or foe: public transportation and ride-hailing

It’s one of the industry’s biggest promises: that automated cars will eliminate urban gridlock and reduce energy consumption by smoothing traffic flow – especially with car and ride sharing services reducing the number of vehicles. But the claim “more car sharing, less traffic” has come under scrutiny lately. A new report found that 60 percent of app-based rides drew people away from using public transportation, biking or walking (we have added the report to our studies database).

Are autonomous shuttles the enemy of public transportation? Scott Smith disagrees. Smith is CEO of Valley Metro, the public transportation agency in Phoenix, Arizona. Last week, Valley Metro announced a partnership with Waymo to begin shuttling people autonomously to and from public transportation. “I’m not scared, I’m excited,” Smith told Bloomberg. “There will be a reduction in bus use, in subway use in some areas, but expanded use in others.” Smith expects autonomous shuttles to solve the so-called “first mile/last mile” problem in public transit, with Waymo providing cheap connections to Phoenix’s express buses and light rails.

So far, private companies like Uber have competed with local transport operators. That’s why this cooperation could prove to be a game-changer. Partnerships like these are essential to establish principles for a symbiotic coexistence. They could also provide a stimulus for public transit providers to make themselves more attractive, particularly in terms of digitalization and usability. In the end, passengers will always choose the mode of transport that offers the best combination of convenience and affordability.

Self-driving car waiting for you to cross

Driverless cars will only increase safety if the communication between man and machine is flawless. This includes communication between the car and its passengers – but also with other road users. Californian start-up Drive.ai just launched a remarkable pilot program in Frisco, Texas, that it had announced back in May. Their strikingly orange-colored driverless vans feature four LED screens — one on the hood, two above each of the front tires, and one on the rear. The front and side screens flash “Waiting for you to cross” when the vehicle stops at a pedestrian crossing. Other messages include “Going”, “Entering / Exiting” and “Human Driver” (when the vehicle is in manual mode).

No matter how the public will react to these trials: they are textbook examples of how to create trust by being transparent and offering insights into the black box that autonomous driving still is too most people.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                       

Angelo Rychel

Senior Editor, 2025AD

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