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Uber Gives $5.5M for Robotics Research

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Uber logoRide-sharing company Uber is giving $5.5 million to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to support a new robotics faculty chair and three fellowships, as Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, writes in the Uber newsroom. The gift is part of a partnership between the company and the university that was announced back in February, which included the formation of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, as Uber wrote at the time. The partnership, which Uber calls “strategic,” will provide a means for Uber technology leaders to work with CMU faculty, staff, and students in mapping and vehicle safety and autonomy technology, Uber wrote.

The gift will help CMU to keep attracting “the world’s best roboticists,” Kalanick writes. CMU’s groundbreaking research has made self-driving cars possible, he writes, adding that the partners are “passionate” about making transportation “as reliable as running water.” Kalanick continues: “So while it’s still early days in our partnership, the potential to improve transportation — from safer cars to smarter cities — is immense.”

Self-Driving Vehicles

Asha Barbaschow writes for ZDNet that in February “Uber hinted that under its guidance, researchers at the university will seek to develop driverless cars, as well as technology around vehicle safety.” Uber has a “vested interest” in self-driving cars, Dave Gershgorn wrote for Popular Science back in June, in light of a lawsuit that may force Uber to classify its drivers as employees instead of as contractors.

Indeed, last week, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen ruled that a lawsuit brought by three former drivers seeking mileage and tip reimbursement could proceed as a class action, as Matt Thompson writes for The Atlantic. That means that as many as 160,000 California Uber drivers could become part of the case. If Uber is required to reclassify its drivers, it will cost the company a lot more in overtime, payroll tax, and health insurance, Thompson writes. The appeal of driverless cars is that they “obviously don’t demand the same type of equitable treatment as human drivers (at least not yet),” Thompson writes.

Andrew Wood wrote for CNBC in June that “Uber is among the Silicon Valley firms pushing furthest into a self-driving car future.” He wrote that Kalanick said last year that self-driving cars will eventually replace all of Uber’s drivers. In 2014, Kalanick said the benefits of Uber using autonomous vehicles — less traffic, fewer car accidents, and the economy of people not needing to own cars — will be greater than the downside of having to let drivers go, as Jason Del Rey wrote in a May 2014 article for re/code. However, shortly after that interview, Kalanick tweeted that he expected the transition to take decades: “Let’s take a breath and I’ll see you in the year 2035,” he wrote.

The Race to Autonomy

In a related item, CNBC offers a slide show of the seven cars closest to being self-driving. They include:

  • The Tesla Model S, whose auto-steering feature controls steering, acceleration or braking when on highways;
  • The BMW i8, whose heads-up display shows the vehicle speed on the windshield;
  • The Mercedes S-Class, whose Steering Assist Feature uses radar to detect the speed of cars ahead, and whose cameras tell the car where the lane lines are, and keep it in lane;
  • The Lexus LS 600h L, whose pre-collision system notices if the driver is not facing forward and sends a warning if there is an object ahead;
  • The Maybach 62 Landaulet, a $1.3 million car whose Sensotronic Brake Control modulates pressure on each wheel, making for greater precision and faster stops;
  • The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee (the most affordable car on this luxury-car-dominated list), equipped with blind-spot monitor and adaptive cruise control, the latter of which “maintains the distance between you and the car in front of you, and sounds an alarm if it thinks you should take over.”
  • The Cadillac One, the car that drives President Obama around, is coated with armor 5 to 8 inches thick, and has an explosion-resistant fuel tank and Kevlar-enforced tires that resist punctures and shredding.

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