Can Uber Survive Without Self-Driving Cars? – Adrienne LaFrance Mar 26, 2017


A self-driven Uber-owned Volvo flipped on its side after a collision in Tempe, Arizona. Police say Uber’s car did not cause the crash. | Mark Beach / Fresco News / Reuters

After a high-speed crash in Arizona, the ride-hailing giant grounds its autonomous fleet.

In the era of self-driving cars, a scary but otherwise uneventful car crash can be huge news. This was the case in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday, when an Uber self-driving car was hit so hard that it rolled onto its side. There were no serious injuries reported.

Uber has grounded its fleet of self-driving cars in Arizona as a result, a spokeswoman for the company told me. “We are continuing to look into this incident, and can confirm we had no backseat passengers in the vehicle,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement provided to The Atlantic. Uber also suspended testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh and San Francisco “for the day, and possibly longer,” The New York Times reported. In addition to its global ride-hailing service, Uber has been testing its self-driving car technology on public roads in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and California for several months.

The vehicle involved in the Arizona crash was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision—meaning the car was driving itself with a human riding behind the wheel—but police in Tempe say Uber wasn’t to blame for what happened. A human-driven vehicle failed to yield at a traffic signal, and collided with the Uber SUV, police said in local news reports.

The incident is a reminder of the need for this technology in the first place: Humans are abysmally bad drivers. But it’s also a reminder of how much Uber has riding on the success of self-driving cars.

And how much is that? Everything, basically.

If self-driving cars are adopted on a mass scale and Uber isn’t leading the way, its current business—which revolves around humans driving cars—is made obsolete. But if Uber finds a way to dominate in the development of self-driving cars, it can remove those costly human drivers from its business model—a scenario that could mean a windfall for Uber. Succeeding on this front “is basically existential for us,” Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, told Bloomberg Businessweek in August.

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