Uber is back in the robotaxi game after signing 10-year deal with Motional

Nearly two years after selling its autonomous vehicle research division to a competitor, Uber is finally back in the robotaxi business. The company signed a 10-year multimarket deal with Motional, a joint venture between Hyundai and Aptiv, to deploy autonomous vehicles on its ride-hailing and delivery platforms, the companies announced.

Motional’s autonomous vehicles will ferry both passengers and delivery items for Uber and its Uber Eats division, with trips expected to start later this year. The deal isn’t exclusive: Motional also operates an autonomous taxi service in Las Vegas with Uber’s main competitor Lyft, while Uber has a 10-year deal with Nuro to use the company’s driverless delivery pods in California and Texas. (Uber also has a delivery pilot in progress with Motional in Santa Monica.)

“One of the largest deployments of autonomous vehicles on a major ride-hail network”

But the Uber-Motional partnership has the appearance of being far larger and more ambitious than either of those projects. Uber said it was the first deal to span both ride-hailing and delivery, creating “one of the largest deployments of autonomous vehicles on a major ride-hail network, with the potential to reach millions of Uber riders,” the companies said.

Details are still scant about the forthcoming service. The companies said they anticipate launching in multiple cities across the US but wouldn’t disclose which markets were being targeted first. A spokesperson for Uber did confirm that potential riders would not be required to sign up for a wait list nor sign a nondisclosure agreement to join a beta testing program.

If the service resembles Lyft and Motional’s robotaxi business in Las Vegas, customers will have access to a range of new features, including the ability to unlock the doors through the Uber app. Once inside the vehicle, they’ll likely be able to start the ride or contact customer support from an in-car touchscreen. Motional’s fleet is mostly comprised of Hyundai Ioniq 5 electric vehicles.

Where the service will launch will depend largely on approval from local authorities. Some states, like California, have a rigorous series of testing and permits to obtain before a commercial robotaxi business can be authorized. Other states, like Arizona and Texas, have fewer requirements.

The deal represents a comeback of sorts for Uber’s AV ambitions

The deal represents a comeback of sorts for Uber’s AV ambitions after a tumultuous period for the business. The company’s first CEO Travis Kalanick viewed self-driving vehicles as an essential — and even existential — investment. Kalanick predicted that AV technology would bring down the cost of an Uber ride to the point where it would dominate most urban transportation. “When theres no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle,” he said at one point.

But things took a turn almost immediately. Anthony Levandowski, the division’s head engineer, was charged with stealing trade secrets from Waymo, the AV division of Alphabet where he once worked, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. (He was later pardoned by President Donald Trump.)

And in 2018, an Uber self-driving car with a safety driver in the front seat struck and killed a woman crossing the street at night in Tempe, Arizona. The incident was seen as a setback for the entire industry.

After a lengthy investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board split the blame between Uber, the safety driver, the victim, and the state of Arizona in a blistering official report that also took the federal government to task for failing to properly regulate the industry. The company was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by local authorities and later settled a lawsuit with the victim’s family for an undisclosed sum. The safety driver was charged with negligent homicide by local prosecutors and is currently pending trial.

With the imminent return of autonomous vehicles to Uber’s platform, Kalanick’s rhetoric about cheap, plentiful Uber rides is back on the front burner. The company claims that the combination of Uber’s algorithmic know-how and Motional’s vehicles will result in “a better experience for Uber customers, ultimately leading to reduced wait times and lower fares.”