May 23, 2023 - Economy

Uber to deploy Waymo self-driving cars in Phoenix area

Waymo's autonomously driven Jaguar I-PACE electric SUV. Photo courtesy of Waymo

Uber is poised to begin rolling out Waymo self-driving cars in the Phoenix area, marking what could be the first step in a broader partnership signaling the end of the long-standing feud between the two companies.

Why it matters: This is Uber's long-expected return to the autonomous vehicle game since selling its own AV research unit in early 2021.

  • For Waymo, which gained a small stake in Uber in 2018 as part of a settlement in a trade secrets dispute, the deal gives it access to both passenger rides and food delivery to expand its testing.

Driving the news: Waymo and Uber said Tuesday that their partnership will begin "with a set number" of robotaxis later this year in a 180-square-mile area.

  • “Fully autonomous driving is quickly becoming part of everyday life, and we’re excited to bring Waymo's incredible technology to the Uber platform," Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement.

Context: Uber has long said that self-driving cars are essential to its future.

  • And experts widely expect the first broad-scale deployment of autonomous vehicle technology for consumer use to take place in a ride-sharing context.

Our thought bubble: "Ultimately, Uber and Lyft might be the smartest places to deploy autonomous vehicle technology — where and when it makes sense," Axios What's Next co-author Joann Muller shares.

  • 💭 "They already know how to efficiently deploy vehicles on their network to meet demand. AV companies like Waymo are under pressure to turn their driverless technology into a viable business, and partnerships like this will help them accelerate that effort."

The intrigue: Google accused disgraced former executive Anthony Levandowski of stealing its self-driving car secrets when he left the company in 2016 to join Uber, where he quickly created an autonomous vehicle operation.

  • Levandowski pled guilty in 2020 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He received a presidential pardon from Donald Trump in 2021.

Reality check: It's been a bumpy road for self-driving car efforts after a feverish beginning in the 2010s.

  • Uber gave up on developing its own self-driving cars after a deadly crash in 2018.
  • More recently, Ford and Volkswagen pulled the plug on their autonomous vehicle joint venture, Argo AI, while AV delivery startup Nuro laid off 20% of its workforce, Joann reported.

Yes, but: Waymo, the former Google self-driving car project, is widely considered one of, if not the most advanced autonomous vehicle companies in the world.

  • The company has been operating a paid, rider-only robotaxi service that's been open to the public in the Phoenix area since 2020.
  • General Motors-backed Cruise and other major automotive and tech companies have also been pursuing robotaxis with the hope of expanding their services.
  • Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk continues to say that his company's Autopilot is the most advanced autonomous system in the marketplace despite questions about its capability.

The bottom line: Self-driving cars are inching forward despite a number of setbacks.

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