Star autonomous vehicles engineer Anthony Levandowski has been ordered by the court not to participate in building Uber’s self-driving cars while the company is in litigation with Google-owned Waymo over intellectual property theft, according to The New York Times. Levandowski has been a pioneer in self-driving vehicles, building one of the first cars to use LIDAR, a laser based sensor.
Levandowski worked for Google’s self-driving car projects before leaving to found his own company, Otto, in January 2016. Otto was the first company to make a fully autonomous tractor-trailer run, last year. Otto was acquired by Uber in July, and Levandowski has been leading the dominant ridesharing company’s self-driving car research ever since.
So Levandowski’s departure will hold Uber back, but the news seems minor compared to another piece of news broken by The Times this weekend: that Lyft has teamed up with Waymo to facilitate bringing to market cars that drive themselves. Lyft has reportedly raised a billion dollars this year, and half of that money has come from GM, the world’s largest auto maker.
Waymo is a subsidiary of Google. Lyft has a significant stake from GM. So Uber now faces the combined threat of the country’s largest automaker and the world’s second largest company. Both seem to want the same thing from Lyft, its market penetration. Waymo and GM will both have an easier time testing their vehicles in lots of markets with access to Lyft’s network.
And it’s doubtful that there’s a lot of conflict between Waymo’s goals and GM’s. Waymo has always said that it doesn’t want to build cars, as Recode has reported. Waymo does appear to want to build some of the hardware and it also seems to want recognition for having a Google car. This has made carmakers wary.
That said, Google has also had mobile phones of its own, nearly as long as there has been an Android platform. That hasn’t stopped it from providing an operating system that could be used by other brands. Through Lyft, GM and Google might be able to find a way work together such that there is a Google car on the road, but Google’s work can also end up on other vehicles bearing other brands.
GM appears to have accepted the fact that it may not be able to rely on a world filled with cars for much longer. Rather than some past industries that resisted technological change, it looks like GM is trying to find a way to stay relevant in what could become a very different world.
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It’s not alone among old school car makers. Ford has been reorienting itself as a mobility company, rather than a car company (it has even sponsored a bikeshare program). Chrysler is collaborating with Waymo on minivans. Volvo actually has autonomous cars on the road, though they are only pilot projects.
When people think about industries that have recently been disrupted by technology, music is usually the first to come to mind. The camera industry is another that took a long time facing up to change, and retail is starting to look like it could soon be a casualty as well.
It’s striking that an industry as bound to tradition and capital as the automotive industry seems to be on track for the coming shift. It could give workers at those companies some reason to hope that the next giant round of creative destruction may not leave them all at the wrong end of a mortgage. A future where automakers meet change head-on could be good for their suppliers and employees, but it could drive Uber under.