If you’re to believe Uber’s lawyers, the fate of the $69 billion
is tied up in one bid from an opponent trying to
stop its work on self-driving cars.
Waymo, a subsidiary of Google-parent company Alphabet, sued Uber
in February claiming it stole trade secrets. Weeks later, it
filed a preliminary injunction to try to stop Uber’s work on
self-driving cars until the case resolves.
Uber obviously doesn’t want that to happen, but not because it
may just slow down its research. A stop to the self-driving car
work would apparently threaten to topple Uber’s entire
response to court on Friday, Uber said stopping its work on
self-driving cars would threaten its future as a “a viable
“To hinder Uber’s continued progress in its independent
development of an in-house lidar that is fundamentally different
than Waymo’s, when Uber has not used any of Waymo’s trade
secrets, would impede Uber’s efforts to remain a viable
business, stifle the talent and ingenuity that are the
primary drivers of this emerging industry, and risk delaying the
implementation of technology that could prevent car accidents,”
Uber said (emphasis ours).
Of course, many people question whether a company that’s believed
to be losing billions of dollars a year is a “viable” business to
begin with. The six-year-old company hasn’t yet figured out
how to make humans in the drivers seat work as a profitable
business, and it’s also tackling everything from food delivery to
vertical take off planes.
Discussions about the current viability aside, Uber continues to
repeat that self-driving cars are “existential” to its future
even though internally the company crowned 2017 the year of
the driver (the human kind).
Even when it comes to its bottomline, Uber hasn’t bet the house,
based on its own internal calculations. In March, The
Information revealed that removing the driver from the
equation would “only increase Uber’s projected long-term net
profit margin by as much as 5 percentage points,” according
to the report.
So if a robocar fleet is the El Dorado of profitability, why does
it consider self-driving cars the only way it can remain viable?
It’s because its CEO Travis Kalanick has a great fear of his
entire business being left behind and has already bet that
autonomous cars are the future.
Take this interview with Business Insider in August 2016 right
after it purchased Otto, the company at the heart of the lawsuit
Biz Carson: You called the development of autonomous
vehicles existential to the company, and you’ve also called
buying Otto another existential move. So what is so existential
about it and where is that threat really coming from?
Kalanick: I think it starts with understanding that the
world is going to go self-driving and autonomous. Because,
well, a million fewer people are going to die a year.
Traffic in all cities will be gone. Significantly reduced
pollution and trillions of hours will be given back to people —
quality of life goes way up. Once you go, “All right, there’s a
lot of upsides there” and you have folks like the folks in
Mountain View, [California,] a few different companies working
hard on this problem, this thing is going to
happen. So if that’s happening, what would happen
if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the
autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by, basically, in a
very expeditious and efficient way.
Carson: How soon will self-driving cars realistically
be a significant portion of Uber’s fleet?
Kalanick: That is the trillion-dollar question, and I wish
I had an answer for you on that one, but I don’t. What
I know is that I can’t be wrong. Right? I have to make sure
that I’m ready when it’s ready or that I’m making it
ready. So, I have to be tied for first at the least.
Calling a single injunction a threat to Uber’s future may be
a bit of hyperbole on the behalf of Uber’s lawyers, but it
does match the paranoia of Uber’s CEO.
Kalanick strongly believes that Uber needs to be among the
leaders of the self-driving car revolution, even if internally
the company doesn’t think it’ll radically change the business.
Uber’s already behind
the mark in multiple ways,
especially when compared with Waymo, which is trying to
impede its development. Uber may sound hysterical that its future
could really be up in smoke if a preliminary injunction goes
through, but in the mind of its CEO, self-driving cars are one
thing that it has to have before the future passes it by.