CMU researchers at NREC leave for future at Uber

For Uber, a company that has become a household name in the U.S., growth is naturally in its sights, and has been since the company’s inception.

Earlier this year, Uber teamed up with Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Department. Autonomous vehicles are the talk of the future of transportation, and Carnegie Mellon is a leader in research on robotics and self-driving cars.

As Uber continues to grow, not only allowing consumers nationwide to use their service, but also expanding to countries like Mexico and Greece, drivers are in high demand. These drivers, however, put a heavy burden on Uber’s bottom line. It made sense, therefore, for Uber to invest in a future with self-driving cars.

Behind the scenes, the agreement was rife with tension and confusion from the start. The National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) is used to their funding coming from corporate and government donations, and the Uber agreement caused confusion, as much of the boost in funding for autonomous research was to come from the school’s pocket.

To add to the confusion, the standards were ambiguously set for intellectual property. Now Uber is setting up facilities in Pittsburgh and has hired 40 staff members from NREC, bringing intellectual property, contracts, and funds in house.

It is apparent as well that the move of these employees was in the talks prior to the announcement of Uber’s partnership with NREC on Feb. 2.

Carnegie Mellon’s facilities are not purged, so to speak. The NREC still has contracts from the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, and several private donors. Additionally, the NREC has been very involved with the DARPA challenges, autonomous vehicle races sponsored by the U.S. government, and approved by congress.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx visited the NREC last spring to discuss with students and researchers the viability of autonomous vehicles in the future.

Foxx interacted in a round table discussion with students.

“I’m trying to get a good read on whether the driverless car is going to benefit us. One of the reasons [the Department of Transportation] takes a neutral stance on driverless cars is because we don’t know whether driverless cars or vehicle-to-vehicle communications are viable in the future,” he said in May of 2015.

This makes Carnegie Mellon, as a top research center for driverless cars, a place to watch for the secretary of transportation. Autonomous and interacting vehicles are already becoming more and more prevalent, and it’s not just Uber who would benefit from autonomous vehicle research. Google has long been developing its own driverless cars, and many other manufacturers have joined in. Modern vehicles also made big news this summer when two engineers were able to take control of a Chrysler Jeep remotely via the car’s internet capabilities.

With the world talking more and more about the viability of the driverless car, Carnegie Mellon has seen its name in many papers and news stories, and that is not about to change; the NREC may just have to deal with some new competition.