Uber Strengthens Self-Driving Car Team
August 25, 2015      

Uber continues to get serious about self-driving cars. The company today introduced a self-driving car partnership with the University of Arizona.

The endeavor, announced by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, will focus primarily on research and development of mapping and optics. Uber will also test its self-driving vehicles on Tucson streets.

No word on how many Uber employees will be working with university researchers.

“We’ll work with some of the leading experts in lens design here at the university to improve the imagery of what we capture and use to build out mapping and our safety features,” Brian McClendon, Uber’s VP of advanced technology, tells The Seattle Times.

McClendon continues, “I think the College of Optical Sciences is one of the leading in the world, and we are looking for improving the technologies that mapping and driverless vehicles are dependent on, and this is a great place to start.”

Here’s the full text of an email sent out to University of Arizona staff announcing the partnership, courtesy of The Verge:

I am very pleased to announce that this morning, I had the honor of welcoming Governor Doug Ducey, Representative Martha McSally, and Brian McClendon, Vice President of Advanced Technologies for Uber Technologies Inc., to the UA main campus. We held a press conference to announce an exciting new partnership between Uber and the University of Arizona.

Through the statement of intent that we signed today, Uber and the UA have agreed to work together on educational, workforce development, and research efforts in optics, engineering, and education for the benefit of both parties and for that of Southern Arizona. This partnership builds on the UA’s history of excellence in optical sciences and will fund important research here at the UA in the coming years. Details of the agreement are yet to be finalized but common areas of interest and expertise include mapping and autonomous or “self-driving” technology.

Uber will also partner with the UA on student engagement and a scholarship program in the College of Optical Sciences that will support our efforts in the 100% Engagement initiative as well as those in expanding accessibility to affordable higher education. This is a very exciting new partnership, and I am so very glad that the UA’s global research leadership and commitment to innovation allows us to join in a collaborative effort that will have great benefit for this state. One of the exciting facets of public-private partnerships such as this one with Uber is to see University research engaged at the forefront of commercial and technological innovation. I am impressed with Uber’s vision and commitment to support discovery that will drive Arizona’s innovation and knowledge economy. I am grateful for Governor Ducey’s support for this partnership and for his leadership in helping to facilitate it. I look forward to the great things the partnership will do for our state and its people.

This is the latest in a string of moves by Uber that signifies a move towards self-driving cars. Uber recently snatched up about 50 roboticists from Carnegie Mellon to work on driverless cars after publicly announcing a partnership with the university.

In March, Uber also bought digital mapping specialist deCarta, which provides maps for many consumer products, including General Motors’ OnStar system.

In June Uber hired former Google head of mapping Brian McClendon to lead its Advanced Technologies Center. McClendon is known for co-founding the startup that eventually became Google Earth before making Google Maps what it is today.

And finally, but perhaps most importantly, the California Labor Commission recently ruled that Barbara Ann Berwick, a former Uber driver, should be classified as an employee, not an independent contractor. As a result, Uber has to pay her $4,152.20 in business expenses for time she worked as an Uber driver in 2014.

This is a move that could drastically reduce the profitability of Uber, a fast-growing startup that has a $40 billion valuation. Uber is adding hundreds of thousands of drivers around the world each month, and having to offer salaries, health insurance and other benefits could be a huge roadblock for the company. At of the end of 2014, Uber employed 160,000-plus drivers.

Self-driving taxis would certainly eliminate the company’s top expense.