Thursday, June 15, 2017

Lest We Forget: "Uber isn't sure if it can 'remain a viable business' without building self-driving cars"

A repost from April 10, 2017:

If I were a late round Uber investor this would be a bit concerning.
We've posted on Kalanick and his "existential" quote, which is one thing, but this is a statement to a Federal Court.

From Business Insider. April 8:
If you're to believe Uber's lawyers, the fate of the $69 billion company 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 business. 
In its response to court on Friday, Uber said stopping its work on self-driving cars would threaten its future as a "a viable business."
"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 (emphasis ours):
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....

And Travis doing his "KimKierkegaardashian"* existentialist bit:

March 16, 2017
Remember that time Uber's Kalanick said having autonomous was crucial to the company's very survival? (a deep dive)

Sure you do:
"We're at the very beginning stages of becoming a robotics company," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said at the Vanity Fair Summit in San Francisco in October. "As we move toward the future, autonomy is a pretty critical thing for us. It's existential."
-via c|net, Dec. 2016
I think he chose his words carefully, an existential threat literally threatens the existence of a firm and he has known since at least 2014 that without major breakthroughs in autonomous vehicles Uber could never be worth what they had convinced investors to pay:
"When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away."
-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, May 28, 2014

Combine Kalanick's statements and the corporate culture he created with the fact the central figure in the Waymo lawsuit was in contact with Uber before he left the Alphabet company's autonomous efforts  and even a dull-witted paralegal could make a case for conspiracy,
And that would threaten Uber's existence.

From Bloomberg, March 16:

And that's before we even get to stuff like:

Does Uber Go Bankrupt If Didi Chuxing Decides To Compete In the United States?