Near the end of 2014, Uber co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick flew to Pittsburgh on a mission: to hire dozens of the world’s experts in autonomous vehicles. The city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has produced many of the biggest names in the newly hot field. Sebastian Thrun, the creator of Google’s self-driving car project, spent seven years researching autonomous robots at CMU, and the project’s former director, Chris Urmson, was a CMU grad student.
“Travis had an idea that he wanted to do self-driving,” says John Bares, who had run CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center for 13 years before founding Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes components for self-driving industrial robots used in mining, farming, and the military. “I turned him down three times. But the case was pretty compelling.” Bares joined Uber in January 2015 and by early 2016 had recruited hundreds of engineers, robotics experts, and even a few car mechanics to join the venture. The goal: to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers—as quickly as possible.