Toyota extends a lifeline to Uber’s troubled self-driving car program

2018 Toyota Sienna

Uber’s self-driving car program has been adrift since a fatal crash in March, but the ridesharing company may have just gotten a lifeline. Toyota will invest $500 million in Uber, and the two companies will work together on deploying autonomous cars in pilot ridesharing programs by 2021.

Under the partnership, Uber autonomous-driving tech and Toyota’s own prototype Guardian system will be integrated in Toyota test vehicles. These vehicles will operate in pilot ridesharing services on the Uber network. Toyota believes services like Uber will be the main users of self-driving cars, rather than individual owners.

The fleet of self-driving cars will be modified Toyota Sienna minivans. Uber currently uses Volvo XC90 SUVs as test vehicles, and had planned to buy thousands of them as part of an effort to scale up its autonomous-car program. It’s unclear what will happen with the Volvo deal now that Uber is working with Toyota, but it’s possible the company will use cars from multiple manufacturers. Rival Waymo currently uses Chrysler Pacifica minivans, but will soon add the Jaguar I-Pace electric car to its fleet.

Toyota has already done some self-driving development work in-house, including the creation of two prototype systems. Guardian only intervenes when it thinks the human driver needs help, while Chauffeur takes complete control. Toyota even built a test vehicle with two steering wheels to study the process of handing off control from human to machine.

Uber was a leader in self-driving cars, but has lost ground in the wake of a fatal crash. In March, an Uber test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian while she was pushing a bicycle across a street in Tempe, Arizona. Uber suspended testing and withdrew its autonomous cars from Arizona, but said it would eventually resume testing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That hasn’t happened yet, and in the meantime Uber has scrapped its self-driving truck program.

The crash came roughly a month after Uber settled a trade-secrets lawsuit with Waymo, in which the Alphabet unit accused Uber of using information stolen by engineer Anthony Levandowski. Waymo has since accelerated its plans for deploying autonomous vehicles, starting a self-driving truck pilot and announcing plans to launch an autonomous ridesharing service in Arizona before the end of the year.

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