After fatal crash, Uber to expand its self-driving car research in Toronto

Months after a fatal crash involving one of its self-driving vehicles in Arizona, Uber is not only doubling down on its autonomous research efforts, but investing in a research hub uniquely positioned to reduce the likelihood of similar accidents in the future.

The San Francisco, Calif.-based company announced on Thursday that it is expanding its Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) in Toronto and opening a new engineering lab — its first in Canada. Uber says it plans to spend $200 million Cdn on the Toronto hub over the next five years, which will eventually bring its head count in the city from 200 to about 500 employees.

Uber’s ATG in Toronto is one of the company’s four autonomous research hubs, alongside Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Phoenix.

“When the plan is to have 500 people, it’s not going to be a satellite office,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told CBC. “The work that we’re doing in self-driving is fundamental to the future of our company, and frankly, we think transportation more broadly.”

The investment comes at a time when Uber is reckoning with sizeable challenges both inside and out. The company continues to grapple with the legacy of its former CEO and co-founder, Travis Kalanick, and the toxic corporate culture he left behind. A recent investigation into assaults on riders, as well as a deadly crash in Toronto, have again put safety in the spotlight.

At the same time, Uber is trying to get a piece of the increasingly crowded market for low-cost rental scooters and bikes.

As competition among self-driving car makers accelerates, Uber is trying not to be left behind — with Toronto now set to play an increasing role in an important, if still unproven, part of Uber’s transformation.

“The team here develops AI technology that improves both the performance of the system as well as creates new capabilities,” said Raquel Urtasun, who is ATG’s chief scientist, and a renowned expert in computer vision. Their work is helping Uber’s self-driving cars see farther, identify objects more accurately and react more quickly — and and she says they’ve made “fantastic progress” in the 15 months since she was chosen as the founding head of the Toronto lab.

But after one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles struck and killed 49 year old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Ariz., last March, ATG has its work cut out for it if it wants to prove that Uber’s self-driving vehicles can operate safely and reliably enough to get back on the road.

“We hope that with the work here we will get systems that are actually better, and therefore the likelihood of something like that happening reduces,” Urtasun said.

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