Uber is bringing its research and development into self-driving cars to Toronto, Ontario, representing the first time the ride-hailing company has looked outside the US to grow its autonomous driving efforts. It’s also a sign that the allegations of stolen self-driving car secrets from Waymo, a spinoff of Google, haven’t diverted Uber from its commitment to autonomous driving.
Uber announced today that it tapped Raquel Urtason, an associate professor of computer sciences at the University of Toronto, to lead its new branch of its Advanced Technologies Group. Urtason specializes in machine learning and computer vision — the technology that helps cars “see” the world around them. According to Uber, she will be managing a small group: only eight students and post-docs, some of whom will only be made full-time Uber employees after they receive their PhDs.
Urtason and her team will focus on three things: perception, or recognizing objects in the world; localization, the car knowing where it is in the world; and mapping, improving our mapping capabilities to help our self-driving pilots scale.
According to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Urtason’s work will complement the research underway at Uber AI Labs, led by University of Toronto alum Zoubin Ghahramani. That group was launched after Uber’s acquisition of a startup called Geometric Intelligence last December. (One of the researchers at Geometric later stepped down from his role at Uber AI Labs, one of a series of executive departures amid the ride-sharing company’s many crises.)
“Self-driving technology promises to make our roads safer, our environment healthier and our cities more livable,” Kalanick said in a statement. “While there’s still a lot of work to be done, we believe that the combination of our global ridesharing network with the cutting-edge software and hardware being built by our teams will make this vision a reality—and we couldn’t be more excited about what’s next.”
There’s also an element of Uber hedging its bets, especially in light of the ongoing lawsuit by Waymo. A quick primer: Uber’s efforts on self-driving cars got an adrenaline shot last year after the company acquired self-driving truck startup Otto. But Waymo claims that Otto’s co-founder, a former Google engineer named Anthony Levandowski, stole the key ingredients for self-driving, namely schematics for Google’s proprietary LIDAR sensor. Waymo alleges that Levandowksi used this technology to entice Uber into buying his company and installing him as the head of the ride-sharing company’s self-driving efforts.
Levandowksi, who is pleading the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination in the Waymo lawsuit, has already stepped aside from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group. Regardless of the results of the lawsuit, Levandowski’s time at Uber may be short-lived. In that context, the hiring of Urtason and the expansion into Toronto could be viewed as a move by Uber to keep some skin in the game. Waymo wants to block Uber from using its allegedly stolen technology, so Uber may need to whip up some new sensors if it wants to continue to operate its fleet of autonomous vehicles.