Uber Bought an Autonomous Trucking Company to "Elevate Humanity"

Getty Images / Stephen Lovekin

Uber has acquired Otto, the company that wanted to put the first self-driving trucks on America’s highways, as part of its efforts to create a ride-sharing platform that doesn’t rely on human drivers.

But that’s not how Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick tells it on the company’s blog. There he says that buying Otto and putting its engineers in charge of Uber’s self-driving technology represents a foundational shift in the way tech companies affect people’s lives.

“If that sounds like a big deal— well, it is. More and more the world of atoms is interacting with bits,” Kalanick explained in his blog post. “In order to provide digital services in the physical world, we must build sophisticated logistics, artificial intelligence and robotics systems that serve and elevate humanity.”

The New York Times reports that Uber could pay up to $680 million — 1 percent of its most current valuation — if Otto’s team is able to meet specific goals. It’s not immediately clear what those goals might be.

The acquisition was revealed alongside Uber’s plans to deploy its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh this month so they can pick up their first passengers. Together, the announcements signal Uber’s commitment to autonomous vehicles.

“Over one million people die on the world’s roads every year and 90 percent of these accidents are due to human error,” Kalanick said in his blog post. “In the US, traffic accidents are a leading cause of death for people under 25. This is a tragedy that self-driving technology can help solve.” That’s where Otto comes in.

Making autonomous vehicles requires gathering lots of driving data and Otto has lots of data. Kalanick says that Uber now has “the data and intelligence that comes from doing 1.2 billion miles on the road every month.”

Self-driving cars can save lives. Even if that doesn’t equate to elevating humanity, or excuse Uber’s misdeeds, saving even a few lives by using Otto’s expertise where autonomous vehicles are concerned is still a net positive.