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Uber Sells Its Autonomous Vehicle Research Division

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Uber is getting out of the self-driving game. The ride-hailing giant has sold its autonomous vehicle research unit to a startup. It hasn't quite given up on the idea of robotaxis, but it is recognizing it can no longer afford to spend billions of dollars on the technology. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Uber has always aimed big. It wanted to operate around the globe. It wanted to replace personal car ownership. And when it came to self-driving technology, Uber wanted to play a starring role in that revolution and make a fortune off of it.

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TRAVIS KALANICK: There's a huge, huge, like, positive impact to society when driverless cars become a thing.

DOMONOSKE: That was Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick at a World Economic Forum event in 2016. And after Kalanick was pushed out of Uber because of numerous scandals, new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was still optimistic. He spoke at Davos in 2018.

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DARA KHOSROWSHAHI: We will have autonomous cars on the road, I believe, within the next 18 months not as a kind of a test case but as a real case out there.

DOMONOSKE: Just a few months after that remark, a self-driving Uber on a test run struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. After that deadly crash, Uber pulled its test vehicles off the road for a while, but research into self-driving software continued. The goal was to eventually offer rides without needing to pay drivers. But while self-driving technology has been improving, it's not close to making Uber any money. And that research is very expensive.

DANIEL IVES: Yeah, they've put a lot of money. It's in the billions.

DOMONOSKE: Daniel Ives is with Wedbush Securities. After all these years, Uber is recognizing its limitations. It's never turned a profit, and the pandemic has it bleeding money. Self-driving could still be part of Uber's future in years to come through partnerships, but the company won't be developing the technology in-house.

IVES: This was a strategic vision, but ultimately, for it to really play out, they were going to need to sell this business. They could not support that level of R&D needed to make this successful.

DOMONOSKE: All that expertise is heading to a startup named Aurora that's working on self-driving trucks. Uber isn't getting any cash in exchange. Ives says this transaction is all about getting a money-loser off the books. It's a sign the company that always dreamed big is narrowing its focus. Uber is doubling down on ride-hailing and food delivery as it chases that elusive profit.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNSQUABI'S "ANYTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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