Uber unveils next-generation Volvo self-driving car

An Uber self-driving Volvo on exhibit at the Uber Elevate Summit 2019 in Washington, DC on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 13 June 2019

Uber unveils next-generation Volvo self-driving car

  • The new vehicle has several backup systems for both steering and braking functions
  • Carmakers have struggled to maintain profit margins faced with the rising costs of making electric, connected and autonomous cars

WASHINGTON: Uber Technologies unveiled its newest Volvo self-driving car in Washington on Wednesday as it works to eventually deploy vehicles without drivers under some limited conditions.
Uber said the new production XC90 will be assembled by Volvo Cars in Sweden and have human controls like steering wheels and brake pedals, but also with factory-installed steering and braking systems designed for computer rather than human control.
Uber Advanced Technologies Group chief scientist Raquel Urtasun showed off the company’s artificial intelligence technology that allows it to drive autonomously for long distances on highways without maps and “on the fly” to plot its course and navigate construction zones.
“Our goal is get each one of you to where you want to go much better, much safer, cheaper,” Urtasun said.
As the race to push out autonomous cars across the globe heats up, other companies are also working to deploy self-driving vehicles in limited areas.
Ford Motor Co’s majority-owned autonomous vehicle unit, Argo AI, launched its new fleet of self-driving test vehicles — Ford Fusion Hybrid — in Detroit on Wednesday, expanding to five US cities.
The No. 2 US automaker also opened a research center in Tel Aviv, joining a growing number of major automakers and suppliers setting up shop in Israel’s tech hub.
General Motors Co. in January 2018 sought permission from US regulators to deploy a ride-sharing fleet of driverless cars without steering wheels or other human controls before the end of 2019, but is still struggling to win regulatory approval.
Alphabet Inc’s Waymo unit is operating a robotaxi service in Arizona and said last month it is partnering with Lyft Inc. to serve more riders.
South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. both said they would invest in the self-driving car software startup Aurora and speed up development of their respective autonomous vehicle technologies.
Carmakers have struggled to maintain profit margins faced with the rising costs of making electric, connected and autonomous cars. As a result, they are setting up alliances and lining up outside investors to combat spiraling development costs.
Previously, Uber had purchased about 250 Volvo XC90 SUVs and retrofitted them for self-driving use.
The new vehicles — known by the internal code number 519G and under development for several years — are safer, more reliable and will replace the older vehicles in Uber’s fleet “soon,” according to Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.
“This is about going to production,” Meyhofer said in an interview at an Uber conference in Washington on Tuesday.
The new vehicle also has several backup systems for both steering and braking functions as well as backup battery power and new cybersecurity systems.
Uber is not ready to deploy vehicles without human controls, Meyhofer said.
“We’re still in a real hybrid state,” he said. “We have to get there and we’re not going to get to thousands of cars in a city overnight. It’s going to be a slower introduction.”
The new XC90 vehicles have an interior fish-eye camera to scan for lost items, Uber said. They also do not have sunroofs since the self-driving vehicles have large sensors on the roof and are equipped with auto-close doors to prevent an unsafe departure.
Uber, which has taken delivery of about a dozen prototypes of the new vehicle, but has not yet deployed them on public roads, said the car’s “self-driving system will one day allow for safe, reliable autonomous ridesharing without the need” for a safety driver.
Asked if Uber will deploy self-driving cars without safety drivers in limited areas in the next few years, Meyhofer said: “Yes — way before that.”
But he added that Uber wants to be in “the good graces of public trust and regulatory trust” before making the business decision to deploy.
In December, Uber resumed limited self-driving car testing on public roads in Pittsburgh, nine months after it suspended the program following a deadly accident in Arizona.
In March 2018, authorities in Arizona suspended Uber’s ability to test its self-driving cars after one of its XC90 cars hit and killed a woman crossing the street at night in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, then Uber’s largest testing hub. The crash was the first death attributed to a self-driving vehicle.
In March 2019, prosecutors in Arizona said the company was not criminally liable in the crash and would not pursue charges. Uber has since ended testing in Arizona, but plans to eventually resume testing in Toronto and San Francisco, Meyhofer said.
The death prompted significant safety concerns about the nascent self-driving car industry, which is racing to get vehicles into commercial use.
Volvo Cars Chief Executive Hakan Samuelsson said in a statement that “by the middle of the next decade, we expect one-third of all cars we sell to be fully autonomous.”
Volvo Cars, which is owned by China’s Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd, will use a similar autonomous base vehicle concept for the introduction of its first commercially available autonomous drive technology in the early 2020s.
Volvo and Uber said in 2017 that the rideshare company planned to buy up to 24,000 self-driving cars from Volvo from 2019 to 2021 using the self-driving system developed by Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.
An Uber spokeswoman said Tuesday that the company plans “to work with Volvo on tens of thousands of vehicles in the future.”


Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

Updated 06 June 2020

Cirque du Soleil walks a tightrope through pandemic

  • Suitors wage backstage battle to rescue debt-stricken Canadian circus icon
  • Among the potential bidders is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who fouded the acrobatic troupe in 1984

MONTREAL: Its shows canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an already heavily indebted Cirque du Soleil’s fight for survival has invited an intense backstage battle to try to save the Canadian cultural icon.

High on a list of potential suitors is former fire eater Guy Laliberte, who founded the acrobatic troupe in 1984 but later sold it.

“Its revival will have to be done at the right price. And not at all costs,” said the 60-year-old, determined not to see his creation sold to private interests.

The billionaire clown said after “careful consideration,” he decided “with a great team” to pursue a bid, but offered no details.

Under his leadership, the Cirque had set up big tops in more than 300 cities around the world, delighting audiences with contemporary circus acts set to music but without the usual trappings of lions, elephants and bears.

Then the pandemic hit, forcing the company in March to cancel 44 shows worldwide, from Las Vegas to Tel Aviv, Moscow to Melbourne, and lay off 4,679 acrobats and technicians, or 95 percent of its workforce.

Hurtling toward bankruptcy, the global entertainment giant and pride of Canada commissioned a bank in early May to examine its options, including a possible sale.

Meanwhile, shareholders ponied up $50 million in bridge financing for its “short-term liquidity needs.”

Laliberte, the first clown to rocket to the International Space Station in 2009, ceded control of the Cirque for $1 billion in 2015.

It has since fallen into the hands of American investment firm TPG Capital (55 percent stake) and China’s Fosun (25 percent), which also owns Club Med and Thomas Cook travel. The Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (CDPQ) retains the last 20 percent.

The institutional investor, which manages public pension plans and insurance programs in Quebec, bought Laliberte’s last remaining 10 percent stake in the business in February, just before the pandemic.

Since 2015, the Cirque has embarked on costly acquisitions and renovations of permanent performance halls, while its creative spirit waned, according to critics in the Quebec press.

Meanwhile, it piled on more than $1 billion in debt.

Fearing that the Cirque would be “sold to foreign interests,” the Quebec government recently offered it a conditional loan of $200 million to help relaunch its shows as restrictions on large gatherings start to be eased worldwide.

But the agreement in principle is conditional on the Cirque headquarters remaining in Montreal and the province being allowed to buy US and Chinese stakes in the company at an unspecified time in the future, “at market value” and with “probably a local partner,” said Quebec Minister of the Economy Pierre Fitzgibbon.

“The state does not want to operate the circus, but the circus is too important to Quebec (to leave it to foreigners),” he said.

In addition to Laliberte, other prospective buyers include Quebecor, the telecoms and media giant of tycoon Pierre Karl Peladeau, whose opening lowball bid was outright rejected.

“It is essentially the value and reputation of the brand” that has piqued interest in the company, says Michel Magnan, corporate governance chair at Concordia University in Montreal.

But “as long as there are restrictions on gatherings of people, the future is not very rosy” for the Cirque, he said.

Several challenges await, according to Magnan.

“There were a lot of people working in all of these shows. Where are they now? What are they doing? How are they doing? In what shape are they, what state of mind?” he said.

“The more time passes, the more this expertise risks evaporating.”

Small consolation: The Cirque resumed its performances on Wednesday in Hangzhou, China, five months after a coronavirus outbreak in the city.