After Fatal Uber Crash, a Self-Driving Start-Up Moves Forward


“You don’t succeed by staring in the rearview mirror,” said Andrew Ng, a board member of Drive.ai, who helped found the artificial intelligence labs at Google and the Chinese internet giant Baidu.

Drive.ai said it was moving ahead even as questions about the cause of Uber’s crash remained unanswered. Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokeswoman, declined to comment on specifics, citing an continuing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. But she said the company had initiated a “top-to-bottom safety review” and had brought on Christopher A. Hart, a former chairman of the safety board, as an adviser on its “overall safety culture.”

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Inside a Drive.ai autonomous vehicle.

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Cooper Neill for The New York Times

Tarin Ziyaee, until recently the chief technology officer of the self-driving start-up Voyage, said he hoped the Uber crash would push companies to openly discuss the powerful but still limited technologies inside their test cars.

“We need to talk about the nitty-gritty — what these systems are really doing and where their weaknesses are,” said Mr. Ziyaee, who also worked on autonomous systems at Apple. “These companies are putting secrecy over safety. That has to change. The public deserves to know how things work.”

Mr. Ng said the Uber crash had not affected Drive.ai’s rollout plans. “We’re focused on the path forward,” he said.

Drive.ai was founded in 2015 by Mr. Ng’s wife, Carol Reiley, a roboticist, and several students who worked in a Stanford University A.I. lab overseen by Mr. Ng. The start-up specializes in a rapidly progressing type of artificial intelligence called deep learning, which allows systems to learn tasks by analyzing vast amounts of data.

Venture capital firms including New Enterprise Associates have since invested in the start-up. Based in Mountain View, Calif., Drive.ai has raised $77 million and has more than 100 employees.

Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company that was spun out of Google, is already running a private taxi service outside Phoenix, in a state that is a popular destination for self-driving car experiments. Drive.ai chose to begin its trials in Frisco, where the streets are clean and wide, pedestrian traffic is light and the sun is out for 230 days a year, on average. A Texas law passed in the fall also lets companies operate self-driving services with no restrictions from municipal governments.

When Drive.ai’s free, daytime-only service begins this summer, it will be open to 10,000 people who live or work in the area. The cars will travel along a few miles of road where the speed limit does not exceed 45 miles an hour, with passengers being picked up and dropped off at only a few specific locations.

Backup drivers will be behind the wheel, taking control when needed. But as the program expands, Drive.ai plans on moving drivers into the passenger seat and out of the cars entirely by the end of the year.

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Backup drivers will initially be behind the wheel for Drive.ai, but they will later be moved into the passenger seat and eventually out of the cars entirely.

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Cooper Neill for The New York Times

Though pedestrians are scarce in the area, the cars will drive through parking lots where they are likely to encounter foot traffic. So Drive.ai equipped its cars with digital displays designed to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers. While an autonomous vehicle cannot make eye contact with a pedestrian or respond to hand signals, it can display a simple message like “Waiting for you to cross” or “Picking up.”

Because the cars are equipped with sensors that gather information about their surroundings by sending out pulses of light — as well as radar and an array of cameras — the cars could potentially operate at night as well. But the start-up decided to keep a tight rein on its service before gradually expanding the route and exposing the cars to new conditions. Drive.ai said it would suspend operations during a downpour and in the rare event of snow.

There will still be situations where the cars are slow to make decisions on their own — in the face of extremely heavy traffic, for instance — but remote technicians employed by Drive.ai will send help to the cars over the internet. The cars will include connections to three separate cellular networks.

Drive.ai said it was working closely with Frisco officials. The city of 175,000 can keep the company abreast of construction zones and other road changes, Mr. Ng said, and signs identifying the area where the cars will drive have been installed.

Thomas Bamonte, a senior program manager for automated vehicles with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which handles planning for Dallas and surrounding areas, said such work would become increasingly important as the metropolitan area added roughly a million new people every 10 years.

“We want to invest in new technology rather than the physical expansion of roadways,” he said.

Asked if the Uber crash gave him pause, he said state law allowed companies like Drive.ai to operate without interference from local governments. The companies, he said, must be cautious.

Noah Marshall, a financial analyst with Jamba Juice, which is based in Frisco, said the new autonomous taxi service would be a “great thing” for the town. His office is along Drive.ai’s route, and he said he hoped to try the service.

Other Frisco residents were warier.

“This might be a good idea, but there is so much traffic here, and Texans aren’t very patient,” said Mark Mulch, a local real estate agent. Referring to one Arizona city where self-driving cars are being tested, he added: “Scottsdale is laid back. But Dallas is too fast.”

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BMW and Daimler, Once Rivals, Join Forces to Fend Off Silicon Valley


Virtually all major carmakers in Europe, the United States and elsewhere are trying to remake themselves into “mobility companies” that do more than just mass-produce vehicles. But it is still an open question whether traditional automobile manufacturers can be as agile and technologically savvy as Silicon Valley companies like Uber and Google that are trying to change the very meaning of car ownership — and often have much greater financial resources.

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One of Daimler’s Car2Go vehicles in Brooklyn. It has a fleet of 14,000 in North America, Asia and Europe and claims to be the largest flexible car-sharing service in the world.

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Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Thus far, old-line car companies have struggled to make money with new services like car sharing. DriveNow, a car-sharing business offering a fleet of BMW and Mini cars for customers in Europe, lost 34 million euros, or $42 million, on sales of €142 million in 2017, according to BMW’s annual report.

By putting aside their longtime rivalry and merging their digital operations, BMW and Daimler hope they will be in a better position to compete with companies like Zipcar, a unit of Avis Budget Group that is the largest car-sharing service in the United States, as well as bigger threats like Uber.

The two companies did not disclose the financial terms of the deal. Both said the merger, which must be approved by regulators, will have a slight positive effect on 2018 earnings.

The businesses that will be put into the new joint venture, which does not yet have a name, include:

• Daimler’s Car2Go, which has a fleet of 14,000 vehicles in North America, Asia and Europe and claims to be the largest flexible car-sharing service in the world. Combined, Car2Go and BMW’s DriveNow will have 4 million users, the companies said.

• BMW’s ParkNow service, which helps users find free on-street parking and spaces in paid parking lots.

• BMW’s electric car charging network, which via partners covers 143,000 charging points worldwide.

• Ride-hailing services including Daimler’s mytaxi, an app that allows users to order and pay for registered taxis. The app is popular in Europe, where many cities do not allow Uber and other ride-hailing services.

Daimler and BMW “remain competitors when it comes to the best premium vehicles,” Harald Krüger, the chief executive of BMW, said in a statement. He added, “The planned merger of our mobility services will pool our resources and sends a strong signal to our new competitors.”

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Waymo, a Google Spinoff, Ramps Up Its Driverless-Car Effort


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John Krafcik, chief executive of Waymo, at the Detroit auto show in January. The company plans to introduce a driverless ride service over the next two years.

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Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

Waymo, the autonomous-car company spun out of Google, announced a new alliance on Tuesday that would vastly expand its effort to ramp up a driverless ride service over the next two years.

The company said it planned to buy as many as 20,000 electric cars from Jaguar Land Rover and outfit them with the radars, cameras and sensors it has developed to enable the vehicles to drive themselves on public roads.

The cars will be used in a ride-hailing service that Waymo plans start in Phoenix by the end of this year and then roll out in other cities across the United States, John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive, said in a statement issued in conjunction with an event at the New York International Auto Show.

Eventually, the company said, it hopes to provide a million rides a day.

The announcement comes about a week after an autonomous vehicle operated by the ride-hailing service Uber struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a street in Tempe, Ariz., at night. The accident involved a Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle that Uber had outfitted with radar, cameras and other sensors and computer gear to enable it to navigate without input from a driver.

Although a safety driver was in the Uber vehicle at the time, it was in autonomous mode when it struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, on March 18. It is believed to be first pedestrian death associated with a self-driving car.

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Uber’s New Rival in Australia: An Indian Upstart


India is home to a raft of start-ups in e-commerce, mobile apps and other consumer internet businesses. But few of them have ventured beyond their home market successfully. Zomato, a restaurant review site similar to Yelp of the United States, expanded aggressively overseas a few years ago, only to scale back and focus more on India and a few countries like the United Arab Emirates. Paytm, India’s leading digital-payments company, has targeted its services to Indian immigrants in Canada, primarily as an experiment geared toward learning how to operate in developed countries.

For Ola, Australia could be a compelling international opportunity.

For starters, the country offers room to grow. Fewer than one in five Australians who regularly buy things online used a ride-hailing service in the past year, according to June survey data analyzed by eMarketer, an American research firm. And the typical fares are much higher than in India, meaning Ola could potentially make more money per ride.

“In the ride-sharing market currently, there are no real enemies,” said Satish Meena, a senior forecast analyst with Forrester, a technology research firm. “Everyone is willing to share the pie.”

Australian laws also make it generally easy to set up a ride-share business. Taxify, an Estonian company, arrived in December.

“We welcome competition because it keeps us focused on delivering the very best product,” said David Rohrsheim, Uber’s general manager for Australia and New Zealand.

Experts say that Uber has another incentive: Australia has tough labor laws that could require the company to treat drivers as employees deserving of retirement and other benefits. If its drivers also drive for other services, Uber could more easily argue that they are free agents instead.

Ola is mostly trying to win drivers over with a better deal.

The company takes only 7.5 percent of drivers’ fares, with plans to increase that figure to 15 percent. Uber collects 20 to 25 percent. Drivers said that with Ola they could make 50 Australian dollars, or $39, an hour compared with only $30 Australian an hour with Uber.

“It’s a dramatic difference,” said Cheri Gristwood, an Uber driver in Perth, who was an early adopter of Ola. “I work my butt off, and with Ola I come home with a lot more.”

Mr. Rohrsheim said that Uber had added incentives of its own last year, including paid wait time and a “no thanks” button that lets drivers refuse up to three rides in a row.

“Uber isn’t Uber without driver partners,” he said, “and our success depends on their success.”

Ola’s discounted commission has helped the company sign up 7,000 drivers so far. That is nowhere near the roughly 82,000 who drive for Uber, but more than double what Taxify started with in Sydney in December. Taxify did not respond to requests for comment.

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An Uber driver’s phone shows the company’s surge pricing in effect one day this month. Drivers who work for Ola and Uber said the Indian company’s prices made it appealing to riders when Uber is in surge mode.

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David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

Many of the new Ola drivers help spread the word about the company. Cecilia Cornu, an Ola customer in Perth, first heard about the service when she asked an Uber driver about the two cellphones he had. One, he said, was for Ola.

“He told me my ride would have been cheaper if I had booked it through Ola, as they were running a promotion with free rides,” she said.

“As soon as I got to work,” she added, “I downloaded the Ola app.”

Ola has not explicitly marketed itself to drivers or riders of Indian origin, but the company does expect that the awareness of its brand among Indians will help. About 1.9 percent of Australia’s population of 24 million was born in India, according to 2016 census data; many more are the children of Indian immigrants.

The Ola app still signals that connection: India sometimes shows up as the default country when someone in Australia signs up and adds his mobile phone number.

Ola’s effort to shift from local to global remains imperfect. Some customers have reported problems with the app continuing to calculate rides after trips have ended. Mr. Ward, one of the Ola drivers in Sydney, said the company’s registration process was less streamlined than Uber’s.

Ola’s expansion into Australia may also have a strategic goal beyond higher fares: protection against an unwanted takeover.

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Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, in New Delhi last month. Before Ola’s arrival, Uber had long had the Australian market to itself.

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Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

The Japanese conglomerate SoftBank is Ola’s largest outside shareholder, and one of the largest shareholders in Uber. It has also invested in other ride-hailing companies around the world.

SoftBank executives have made it clear that they would like to see Uber’s operations in some developing countries merge with local players to avoid a competitive blood bath, allowing the company to focus more intensively on higher-profit, developed markets.

Ola recently changed its articles of incorporation to defend against any large investor from forcing a sale of the company. Bhavish Aggarwal, a founder of Ola and its chief executive, is busy trying to raise money from other investors to reduce SoftBank’s influence over his company’s destiny.

Mr. Aggarwal declined several interview requests. “We are very excited about launching Ola in Australia and see immense potential for the ride-sharing ecosystem in a country which embraces new technology and innovation,” he said in a statement.

At times, Uber has been a seller. It has left the ride-hailing business in China and Russia, selling its operations in those countries in exchange for stakes in the dominant local competitors.

Mr. Meena predicted that Ola and Uber would eventually reach a similar arrangement in India, with the Australian operations of each company possibly added to the mix. Developing a robust Australian business could give Ola a bargaining chip in negotiations.

“Everyone is looking at capturing market share,” he said, “and then doing a deal with Uber.”

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