Uber is in a race against Google to create market-ready, self-driving cars, cutting checks and creating a contentious academic partnership along the way. Will it mean a windfall or a buyout for research schools?
We see a lot of corporate-university partnerships these days, in which companies make large donations to benefit a relevant field of study, and make sure the school keeps cranking out future innovations and workers. This relationship between industry and university research is often a symbiotic one, but Uber’s current push to accelerate self-driving cars is showing how it can become strained.
This year alone, Uber’s fast and furious foray into robotics research has led to two nebulous partnerships with universities, some aggressive recruitment, and now a $5.5 million donation to one school. It might herald a wave of future funding for university research teams, or maybe just a hoovering up of the leading Ph.D.s for proprietary work.
The whole thing has unfolded remarkably quickly. Early this year, it became apparent that Uber was developing its own fleet of self-driving cars. Google, one of the company’s own investors, has led in this realm for years, with its elite machine learning research team.
But it’s a space Uber needs to own. As labor laws and city regulations catch up with the company, eliminating drivers would maximize profits by slashing the pesky human element that’s plagued them from the start. But really, with self-driving cars we are approaching a seismic shift in urban transportation, and Uber wants to be in the driver’s seat.
To make this a reality, the company has set up shop in Pittsburgh, home to Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top robotics schools in the country. Uber ran a shop right next to CMU starting in January, then in February announced a partnership with the university, without a lot of detail.
Around this same time, between 40 and 50 of the school’s top robotics researchers departed to work for Uber, creating ambiguity between where their university work ends and company work begins. Concern spread that Uber’s version of a university partnership means they move into town and buy your robotics department.
Then in August, Uber made its way to Tucson, Arizona, striking another loosely defined partnership with the University of Arizona’s optics department, along with a $25,000 donation (just $25,000?). Now, a month later, Uber has made a $5.5 million grant to CMU.
Maybe the company is mending fences with academia, as some have suggested. Or maybe it’s just a sign of the unfolding partnerships. It remains to be seen whether this is actually a good thing for university research, which tends to be less application-based and more abstract than corporate R&D.
Google maintained a similar dance with research schools over the years, balancing the fact that they employ an incredible number of computer science Ph.D.s by making a steady stream of collaborative research grants to faculty. It’s in their best interests to do so, as their in-house team will never generate all the new ideas. Uber may be heading toward a similar situation, with its own shop of top talent supplemented by pumping a bunch of funds toward new faculty, scholarships, fellowships, and projects on campuses.
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There are some troubling aspects to Uber’s recent moves, including, for one, the fact that it’s Uber. This company has shown little respect for public institutions, or really, anything but itself. Also, the tactics at CMU don’t show a lot of consideration for the school, or for faculty who are not working on self-driving cars. Robots can do lots of things, after all. Finally, it’s kind of crazy that this burst of recruitment from academia into industry is not due to a startup boom, but by one company moving to town. Companies like Google and Uber wield so much influence over academic fields.
But this does indicate something that university faculty and administrators are thrilled about—a boon for the field of robotics and its hubs. The field is on the way to massive marketability. Nobody likes to lose faculty, but in the long term, the demand is a good sign for schools like CMU and cities like Pittsburgh that house them.