Uber released new footage and some images of its self-driving trucks, which reveal an updated look with some powerful new sensors. The sensors are now embedded in the truck’s exterior, creating a more seamless look. The addition of a new, spinning 64-channel LIDAR laser sensor on the roof indicates the trucks are operating on a more sophisticated autonomous system than the previous models.
Most notably, Uber has removed all the Otto branding from the trucks, confirming earlier reports that Uber had quietly dropped the name after a trademark dispute with a similarly named Canadian company that makes autonomous vehicles for warehouses and industrial facilities.
Otto has been a bit of an albatross around the neck of the ride-hailing company since Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, accused one of Uber’s executives of stealing its self-driving vehicle designs before leaving Google to start the self-driving truck startup. (Uber subsequently acquired Otto for $680 million, which Waymo claims was premised on the executive, Anthony Levandowski, stealing Google’s documents.)
In an interview with TechCrunch, Uber’s product lead for its trucking division, Alden Woodrow, said the tech refresh was not made as a result of the ongoing litigation between Uber and Waymo. He also said that the LIDAR used in the new design was an off-the-shelf device, rather than developed in-house at Uber’s Advance Technology Group.
The 64-channel spinning LIDAR array will help Uber improve its data collection, Woodrow told TechCrunch. “That really significantly improves what data the truck is able to capture about the world, so it builds a very high-quality point cloud of its surroundings,” he said. “So that really helps the software system make better decisions about what’s out there in the world and make better decisions.”
But it doesn’t necessarily advance Uber’s effort to achieve fully autonomous vehicles — at least not in the eyes of California’s regulators. Previously, Uber ran afoul of California’s autonomous vehicle testing laws by operating its self-driving trucks on public roads without a license. But since then, the DMV says it has met with Uber, reviewed its technology, and determined its not a powerful enough system to require a permit.
“The DMV and [California Highway Patrol] conducted an on-site visit on June 6th to assess the capability of the technology,” a spokesperson for the DMV told The Verge. “The company has a ‘Level 2’ driver assistance system that is in development and does not currently meet the definition of autonomous technology under California law.”
“Level 2” autonomy means the driver can have his or her hands off the steering wheel and feet on the pedals, but is still required to stay engaged with the driving and must be ready to take control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice.
Uber’s self-driving program has suffered a series of setbacks this year, from the Waymo lawsuit to the firing or resignation of several of the program’s top engineers and executives. Nonetheless, the ride-hail company claims that its aggressively pursuing autonomous vehicles, pointing to the recent hiring of Raquel Urtason, an associate professor of computer sciences at the University of Toronto, to lead a new branch of its Advanced Technologies Group north of the border. It also successfully delivered a shipment of Budweiser beer via an autonomous truck in Colorado last year.
That said, Uber is sure to encounter a healthy amount of competition in the self-driving truck space, including from its archrival Waymo. The embattled ride-hail company recently launched Uber Freight, a service that works to connect shippers with truck drivers.