Uber Really Shouldn’t Be In the Driverless Car Business

Last night I mentioned something to a friend about the driverless car crash in Arizona:

The fact that it’s an Uber car doesn’t surprise me. They’re exactly the kind of company that would cut corners: cheap optics, lousy safety drivers, pushing to drive at night before the software is ready, etc. A corporate culture that’s built to expand their taxi service no matter who gets hurt or who complains might build a good taxi service, but it’s the worst possible culture for mission-critical software.

My point was that Uber famously has a corporate culture built around being a bull in a china shop, pushing the limits of expansion as far as they could and focusing obsessively on doing everything at light speed, before authorities could stop them or competitors could catch up. This is not the kind of company that’s likely to slow down to make sure their driverless cars work properly before pushing to the next stage. And sure enough, here’s the New York Times today:

Uber’s robotic vehicle project was not living up to expectations months before a self-driving car operated by the company struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Ariz. The cars were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, like big rigs. And Uber’s human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous car projects….As of March, Uber was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per “intervention” in Arizona.

….There also was pressure to live up to a goal to offer a driverless car service by the end of the year and to impress top executives. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, was expected to visit Arizona in April, and leaders of the company’s development group in the Phoenix area wanted to give him a glitch-free ride in an autonomous car. Mr. Khosrowshahi’s trip was called “Milestone 1: Confidence” in the company documents.

….When Uber moved to a single operator, some employees expressed safety concerns to managers, according to the two people familiar with Uber’s operations. They were worried that going solo would make it harder to remain alert during hours of monotonous driving.

This kind of culture might be OK for, say, Facebook, which doesn’t kill people if there are glitches in its apps. But if you’re launching a satellite into space or putting a driverless car on the road, there’s a whole different development and testing ethos involved. Uber just doesn’t have that. I’d barely trust them to develop software for a driverless golf cart, let alone a driverless car.

The Times reports that Uber was planning to apply for a license to run a driverless car service in December. December! A year ago their cars couldn’t go 13 miles without a problem, but they still thought they’d be ready for full driverless operation in December? That’s crazy. Off the top of my head, I’d want to see something like an average of 10,000 miles between incidents before I thought I was within a year of applying for a limited license.

But not Uber. That’s just not their style.