Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Shaking Up the Autonomous Car World

Julia Kollewe, the Guardian:

Uber has ditched efforts to develop its own self-driving car with the multibillion-dollar sale of its driverless car division to a Silicon Valley startup.

The ride-hailing company is selling the business, known as Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), for a reported $4bn (£3bn) to Aurora, a start-up that makes sensors and software for autonomous vehicles and is backed by Amazon and Sequoia Capital.

As part of the deal, Uber is investing $400m in Aurora in return for a minority stake of 26%. Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, will join Aurora’s board. The deal will also give Aurora access to a carmaker, Japan’s Toyota, which has invested in ATG. ATG has grown to a venture with 1,200 employees.

This does not necessarily mean that Uber is unlikely to have autonomous vehicles — I think that is unlikely for lots of reasons — but it surely does not indicate that the project is going well if it is being offloaded to a startup. Uber’s autonomous transportation effort was, according to its S-1 public offering document, key to its long-term success:

If we fail to develop and successfully commercialize autonomous vehicle technologies or fail to develop such technologies before our competitors, or if such technologies fail to perform as expected, are inferior to those of our competitors, or are perceived as less safe than those of our competitors or non-autonomous vehicles, our financial performance and prospects would be adversely impacted.

So that was yesterday’s shake-up; here is today’s, from Mark Gurman at Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. has moved its self-driving car unit under the leadership of top artificial intelligence executive John Giannandrea, who will oversee the company’s continued work on an autonomous system that could eventually be used in its own car.

The project, known as Titan, is run day-to-day by Doug Field. His team of hundreds of engineers have moved to Giannandrea’s artificial intelligence and machine-learning group, according to people familiar with the change. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

Previously, Field reported to Bob Mansfield, Apple’s former senior vice president of hardware engineering. Mansfield has now fully retired from Apple, leading to Giannandrea taking over.

Mansfield, you may recall, retired in June 2012 only to be hired back just a few months later to oversee a new generically-titled Technologies group. Mansfield only committed to remaining at Apple through 2014 but stuck around: in 2016, Daisuke Wakabayashi of the Wall Street Journal reported that Mansfield was moved to run the autonomous car project:

Bob Mansfield had stepped back from a day-to-day role at the company a few years ago, after leading the hardware engineering development of products including the MacBook Air laptop computer, the iMac desktop computer, and the iPad tablet. Apple now has Mr. Mansfield running the company’s secret autonomous, electric-vehicle initiative, code-named Project Titan, the people said.

[…]

Mr. Mansfield’s reassignment brings a leader with a record of delivering challenging technical products to market to an effort that has been mired in problems, according to people familiar with the project.

Mansfield’s other major project in that time was the Apple Watch. I wonder if this is an indication that much of the hardware work is done and turning it over to Giannandrea is the remaining step in solving the “mother of all AI problems”.

Truly autonomous vehicles are, I continue to believe, a pipe dream for this generation. But if it is not — if self-driving cars really are within reach — I struggle to believe that the company that brought us Siri is capable of cracking this in the not-too-distant future. I would love to be proved wrong, but I have also wanted Siri to work as expected for nearly a decade now.