Toyota, Denso, and the SoftBank Vision Fund announced this week that they have finalized a deal to invest a combined $1 billion in Uber’s autonomous vehicle spin-off, Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.
Major Investment in Uber’s Autonomous Vehicle Network
In a joint announcement this week, Toyota, auto parts manufacturer Denso, and the SoftBank Vision Fund (SoftBank VF) announced, along with Uber, a $1 billion combined investment by the firms into Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (Uber ATG), the culmination of a deal several months in the making.
Uber ATG, a new corporate entity spun-off of Uber, is being set up to accelerate the development, deployment, and commercialization of automated ride-share services. According to the announcement, Toyota and Denso will invest a combined $667 million—no further breakdown was given—while the SoftBank VF will invest another $333 million.
Uber recieved an earlier $500 million investment from Toyota back in 2018 and Toyota is also set to supply Uber with a version Toyota’s Sienna minivan, purposefully modified for autonomous ride-sharing service, starting in 2021. Today’s announcement emphasizes the combined power of Uber’s self-driving technology and the Toyota Guardian safety support system.
Toyota also said that they plan on investing an additional $300 million over the next three years to help support the deployment effort of mass market autonomous ride-share vehicles not just for Uber but for the industry overall.
“This investment and our strong partnership with the Toyota Group are a testament to the incredible work of our ATG team to date, and the exciting future ahead for this important project, alongside great partners,” said Uber CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.
“The development of automated driving technology will transform transportation as we know it, making our streets safer and our cities more livable. Today’s announcement, along with our ongoing OEM and supplier relationships, will help maintain Uber’s position at the forefront of that transformation.”
Toyota Going in Heavy on Self-Driving Technology
Toyota has already made significant investments in autonomous vehicle technology in recent years, and not just with Uber. The Toyota Guardian advanced driver support system is an automated system, similar to Tesla’s Autopilot, that features active monitoring of the surrounding environment in order to respond to detected threats and automatically move the vehicle out of harms way.
“Toyota is dedicated to realizing a safe and secure future mobility society,” said Shigeki Tomoyama, executive vice president of Toyota and president of Toyota’s in-house Connected Company. “Leveraging the strengths of Uber ATG’s autonomous vehicle technology and service network and the Toyota Group’s vehicle control system technology, mass-production capability, and advanced safety support systems, such as Toyota Guardian™, will enable us to commercialize safer, lower cost automated ridesharing vehicles and services.”
While the Toyota Guardian is currently a driver assistance system as opposed to a fully autonomous, point-to-point self-driving system, Toyota is hoping that the Toyota Guardian system will eventually build into a fully autonomous vehicle system capable of complete point-to-point self-driving in the next several years.
Data collected from Uber ATG’s fleet of ride-share vehicles about traffic patterns, navigation, and mapping will no doubt prove invaluable in the effort to build a truly autonomous vehicle system, a process that will require an enormous amount of driving data from real world scenarios and not just simulations and closed course road tests.
It would not be surprising if Toyota’s investments in Uber and Uber ATG were simply to generate this data for their own research and development, since a cumulative investment of just over a billion dollars in 4 years isn’t a high price to pay for one of the world’s top automakers if it enables it to develop and deploy the safest possible autonomous vehicle they can, while also sharing their technology with out companies who want to improve the safety of their autonomous systems.
While the gesture might be out of genuine concern for the safety of the riding public—and there’s no reason to suggest that it is not—it's an inescapable fact that the safety of autonomous vehicles starting on day one is not just important, the entire automotive industry is depending on it.
Autonomous Vehicle Roll-Out Will Be the Mother of All Highwire Acts
Fully autonomous vehicles are currently undergoing various public road testing and have yet to see widespread deployment, and as Uber’s own experience with a self-driving car accident that resulted in a fatality, accidents can potentially set the entire industry back even if they occur at a lower rate than with human drivers. Perception is everything, and since testing has been limited in terms of passenger miles out of necessity, it is impossible to realistically compare data point to data point.
The general public as a whole distrusts autonomous vehicles and are skeptical of their safety, even when there is strong reason to believe otherwise: 90 percent of all vehicle crashes are the result of human error, including most of the crashes involving automated vehicles. Despite this, spectacular accidents can easily serve as the predicate for a skeptical public and nervous regulators to just call off the whole autonomous vehicle thing off until the “technology improves”.
With the potential for millions of future customers who have never purchased an autonomous vehicle before being up for grabs, assuming you could convince them to purchase one at all, the roll-out of autonomous vehicles has all the makings of a furious commercial scrum with little margin for error. Companies will be forced to compete in what would will be an almost entirely new market; no one has really purchased an autonomous vehicle yet, and no resale market for autonomous vehicles exists and won’t for many years, so manufacturers are the only supplier. Buyers will still have a lot of options to choose from if they’re looking to buy, however, so even though the market is fairly exclusive, it's also packed with possibly dozens of companies big and small who may be marketing autonomous vehicles.
This is the kind of environment where corners can easily be cut to outmaneuver a rival. A single shoddily programmed vehicle in a rush to get it to market has the potential for calamity on the roads, and if accidents and fatalities result from a few bad actors in the industry, the guilt in the public imagination will be collectively placed on the industry as a whole. It itsn't hard to imagine skeptical commentators arguing that automakers “rushed” the deployment of these vehicles before “the technology was ready”. It wouldn’t be the first time that the bad behavior of a few companies in an industry nearly destroyed the market for a new technology.
Managing the successful roll-out of a technology that is widely distrusted by the very public you are hoping to sell it to is probably the single greatest anxiety in the industry right now. There's a reason why Toyota announced today that they were setting aside $300 million over the next three years to help the industry prepare for this transition to mass market use of autonomous vehicles. The amount of resources invested into this technology by thousands of companies around the world has been enormous, so this roll-out period could be a make or break moment for a whole lot of companies.