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Uber Has One Way Forward on Self-Driving Cars

The ride-hailing giant needs to mend its broken relationship with Waymo so the two companies can play to each other’s strengths

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For all its talk of championing seamless experiences, Silicon Valley products are littered with self-imposed inefficiencies. The world’s most popular streaming service is incompatible with the most elegant smart speaker because both Spotify and Apple believe they deserve to dominate the music industry. Twitter remains a sea of text in part because Instagram long ago cut off the ability to embed its filtered photos on the social network. These nuisances of the digital world are apparently the price of competition. But when such anticonsumer rivalries spill over to the physical realm, this stubbornness has much higher stakes.

Consider the predicament of Uber, the ride-hailing company that’s been aggressively pushing its driverless cars onto public roads. One of Uber’s driverless vehicles struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, last week, the first time an autonomous car has been involved in a fatal accident with a pedestrian in the United States. The car did not slow down before impact, police have said, and the human monitor inside made no attempt to avoid the collision. Though the pedestrian was not using a crosswalk, and investigations have yet to find Uber at fault for the accident, fallout over the incident is mounting. On Monday, Arizona revoked Uber’s ability to test driverless vehicles in the state indefinitely, and on Tuesday the company said it would not seek to renew its permit to test cars in California. Uber’s first-mover advantage has become an albatross that may permanently taint the firm’s image (again).

Why, exactly, was Uber racing to get driverless cars on the streets so fast? Because the company felt it had to outpace Google, an ally turned archnemesis widely considered to have the most advanced driverless-car technology. When Google’s and Uber’s businesses seemed worlds apart, their leaders were close. Google invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Uber in 2013, and Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO at the time, considered Google chief Larry Page a “big brother.” Slowly, though, their aspirations converged. Google wanted to use its extensive research in self-driving cars to launch an Uber-like ride-hailing service. When Kalanick found out, he began recruiting top autonomous driving engineers from Google’s own ranks. The acrimony crescendoed when Google, via its self-driving spinoff company Waymo, sued Uber for allegedly stealing trade secrets as it poached employees.

Instead of helping each other succeed, Uber and Google are now making poor attempts to imitate the rival company’s strengths. Uber is a business built on cutting corners, and its driverless car efforts have been no different. According to The New York Times, Uber’s cars in Arizona were not even able to travel 13 miles in autonomous mode without encountering a problem that required intervention from the human driver aboard. (Waymo averaged nearly 5,600 miles between human interventions in California in 2017.) Last fall Uber also shifted from having two humans monitoring each driverless car’s activities during rides to just one, leaving fewer potential eyes on the road when the unproven technology went haywire. The company was setting itself up for a big mistake.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik says that his company’s driverless vehicles would have avoided the fatal collision in Tempe. But just like Uber, Waymo has set up an aggressive timetable to catch up to more experienced rivals. On Tuesday, the company announced plans to purchase 20,000 vehicles from Jaguar Land Rover in order to seed a forthcoming ride-hailing service that will execute a million trips per day by 2022 (Uber did at least 5.5 million trips per day as of July 2016). In the world of ride-hailing, Waymo won’t really be competing with other driverless cars, but rather with the massive, efficient networks of riders and human drivers that Uber and Lyft have built up over the past several years.

Uber’s autonomous-car tech doesn’t seem to be customer-ready, and Waymo doesn’t seem particularly well positioned to spin a popular ride-hailing service out of thin air in a market with two fast-growing incumbents. The solution here is obvious: Waymo and Uber should form a partnership, leveraging both Waymo’s technical capabilities and Uber’s sprawling network. Instead of rolling the dice with Uber’s questionable tech, customer rides would be powered by Waymo’s more reliable self-driving kit. And instead of waiting forever for one of Waymo’s few driverless cars to arrive for a pickup, customers would be able to leverage the presence of both driverless and human-driven cars simultaneously. Under a partnership, wait times would go down rather than up as more drivers (human and autonomous) hit the streets on the same service.

Such partnerships used to be foundational to the ways that Silicon Valley effectively introduced new technologies to the masses — IBM’s early PCs were powered by Microsoft’s operating system; Google’s services were a key selling point of the original iPhone. But today’s bloated tech giants insist on serving every need of their users, whether they’re qualified to or not. That’s an annoyance when it tricks users into wasting time with Google Plus, but it’s a danger when it leads to dubious technology powering vehicles on public roads simply because one company is beefing with another.

Whether Uber decides to be more open or not, collaboration will be necessary for the driverless car industry as a whole to gain the public trust. Lyft is pitching its growing customer base as an open network that automakers and tech companies like Waymo can use to deploy their vehicles and easily find customers. Traditional automakers are also beginning to understand that playing nice is a necessity — BMW and Daimler, longtime German rivals, just announced that they will create a joint mobility service to compete with Silicon Valley. There’s still plenty of time for these alliances to be reshuffled. It’s unclear how Waymo’s ambitions to launch its own ride-hailing service will affect its relationship with Lyft, for example, or where Uber’s previously announced partnership with Daimler currently stands. But there seems to be growing recognition that no one can drive solo into the autonomous future.

Uber and Waymo were expected to spar in a weeks-long trial over the allegedly stolen trade secrets, but the two sides reached a surprise settlement after just a week, which granted Waymo a small equity stake in Uber. And according to the Times, new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has been considering scrapping the company’s self-driving car project altogether. The companies thankfully seem ready to fight practical battles rather than ideological ones, which is vital given the life-or-death affect that their self-driving experiments can have. People just want to get around safely, quickly, and affordably — whether they’re in a driverless car or not.