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Boston’s Motional inks deal with Uber to put driverless vehicles on the road

The Boston Globe 10/6/2022 Anissa Gardizy
Motional's all-electric robo-taxi. © Courtesy of Motional and Uber Motional's all-electric robo-taxi.

Your next Uber ride might not have a driver.

Boston-based Motional, an autonomous vehicle startup, and San Francisco-based Uber Technologies said Thursday they plan to deploy a fleet of fully driverless “robotaxis” across the United States for delivery and ride-hailing.

The new partnership, which will span 10 years, is expected to create one of the largest fleets of autonomous vehicles for a major ride-hailing network, the companies said. It has the potential to reach millions of Uber riders and is the first in the industry to include both ride-hailing and food delivery.

Indeed, after a huge amount of hype and problems in the field, the move could turn out to be significant.

Uber will deploy Motional’s driverless, electric vehicles across several US cities, with the first trips expected to start later this year. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but a spokesperson for Uber said the companies agreed on a revenue-share model.

“While it won’t happen overnight, we expect autonomous vehicles to be an increasingly important part of the transportation ecosystem and therefore Uber’s business over time,” said Leah Seay, the spokesperson, adding that partnering with a company such as Motional makes more sense “than building AVs ourselves.”

“This agreement will be instrumental to the wide-scale adoption of robotaxis,” said Karl Iagnemma, chief executive of Motional. “Motional now has unparalleled access to millions of riders and a roadmap to scale significantly over the next 10 years.”

The companies did not specify which cities would have access to the vehicles first, or in how many states they would be available. Driverless cars will be available to customers using UberX and Uber Comfort Electric, the companies said.

The agreement between Motional and Uber expands upon a pilot program that started earlier this year, where Motional conducted autonomous food deliveries for select restaurants in California via Uber Eats. (It seems likely that Uber will start deploying a driverless ride-hailing service in Las Vegas, where Motional has conducted more than 100,000 autonomous rides in a testing program.)

Uber will use Motional’s all-electric Ioniq 5 robotaxi, which has a steering wheel. Jennifer Pietras, Motional’s senior manager of external relations, said the service will eventually be fully driverless, but “initial rides will have vehicle operators present as the companies ramp-up to commercial operation.”

In anticipation of driverless cars, some cities and states have defined rules and regulations, which could limit where Motional and Uber are able to deploy their technology. This summer, California regulators allowed Cruise, a driverless taxi startup, to begin charging customers for rides, but the ride-hailing service will be limited to less busy roads and a fleet of 30 vehicles.

“As always, we comply with all local regulations and obtain the necessary permits for each market we operate in,” Pietras said.

Motional will soon be on the road with two of the largest ride-hailing companies in the country.

In 2020, Motional partnered with Uber competitor Lyft to deploy driverless robotaxis across the United States starting in 2023. The company confirmed it will be launching its fully driverless service with Lyft in Las Vegas next year.

Motional was founded in 2020 as a joint venture between South Korean carmaker Hyundai Motor Group and Aptiv, an automotive tech company headquartered in Ireland. Motional’s workforce comes from two early autonomous vehicle startups, Boston-based nuTonomy, which spun out of MIT, and Ottomatika, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff. Both companies were acquired by Aptiv.

The company now has more than 1,200 employees, including over 350 in Boston.

If autonomous vehicles become widespread, it could raise questions over whether there will be fewer jobs for gig workers. In the escalating fight over whether Uber and Lyft drivers should be considered employees or contractors, driverless cars could, in theory, give companies the option to have fewer or no drivers.

But that future is still a long way off. For years, autonomous vehicle companies said robot cars would take over city streets — solving problems such as traffic congestion and accident fatalities — but safety and technical concerns have slowed the field.

Now, even people who used to tout the potential of the technology have become detractors. Take Anthony Levandowski, who left Google’s self-driving car unit to start Otto, an autonomous truck company, which Uber bought in 2016 before selling it two years later to focus on cars.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find another industry that’s invested so many dollars in R&D and that has delivered so little,” Levandowski told Bloomberg. “Forget about profits — what’s the combined revenue of all the robo-taxi, robo-truck, robo-whatever companies? Is it a million dollars? Maybe. I think it’s more like zero.” (He’s currently working on a startup that would deploy driverless trucks for industrial sites, not streets.)

Uber began working on self-driving cars around 2015, under former CEO Travis Kalanick, announcing a partnership with Carnegie Mellon and the establishment of the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh.

The company’s foray into testing self-driving cars, which involved partnerships with Toyota and Volvo, came to an end after one of its cars struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018.

Uber’s self-driving car unit, known as Advanced Technologies Group, raised $1 billion in 2019 from Toyota and SoftBank’s Vision Fund before being sold the following year to autonomous vehicle startup Aurora.

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