Weekend Roundup: Uber Abandons Big Projects; Facebook’s Big Threat

It was a huge week in the technology industry: Uber decided to finally abandon some expensive (and infamous) initiatives, Facebook is embroiled in the legal fight of its existence, and Apple CEO Tim Cook is feeling peaceful at a nearly-empty office. Let’s jump in!

Uber Abandons Its Big, Bold (and Expensive) Projects 

This week, Uber made a momentous decision to peel away its “experiments”: Flying cars and self-driving vehicles. The flying cars (an initiative known as Uber Elevate) went to a startup called Joby Aviation; as part of that deal, Uber will also invest $75 million in the company.

Uber also announced that it would hand off its autonomous-driving project to Aurora, along with an investment of $400 million. That’s quite an end to Uber’s expensive ambitions to fill the world’s streets with self-driving taxis. 

In an internal email seen by The New York Times, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi framed the decision to eject these high-concept efforts as necessary, adding that the company needs to focus its energies on its core services. “I know there are questions about whether Uber has any ‘big, bold’ bets left,” he wrote. “I understand that question, but I think it misses the big, bold bets right in front of us: to become the undisputed global leaders in both Mobility and Delivery.”

Uber’s former CEO, Travis Kalanick, viewed the development of autonomous driving as necessary for the company’s survival, as eliminating human drivers would allow the company to finally seize enviable margins on every ride. His pathway to developing the technology, however, proved controversial on a number of fronts, from the decision to unleash unauthorized “test” vehicles on the streets of San Francisco to the legal quagmire around the alleged theft of Google’s autonomous-driving work. And that’s before we get into the bad PR around Uber’s attempt to poach a whole bunch of researchers from Carnegie Mellon, its ostensible partner.  

As for the flying cars… well, if you were flush with billions of dollars in venture capital, wouldn’t you be tempted to experiment with futuristic helicopter-taxis capable of lifting off from small rooftops? What investor wouldn’t be absolutely thrilled to hear their money being spent on that kind of sure-to-succeed initiative? 

Even as Uber retrenches to focus on its core businesses, the technology industry is still plowing ahead with autonomous car development. For example, there was news just this week that Apple is continuing to pour resources into Project Titan, its self-driving vehicle initiative, although actual details are scarce. 

Speaking of Apple…

Apple CEO Tim Cook sat down with Outside magazine to discuss a number of issues related to the Apple Watch, what it’s like to work at the enormous Apple Park during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Apple’s continuing interest in augmented reality (AR).

As with other tech firms, the bulk of Apple’s employees continue to work from home, with only about 15 percent heading onto the company’s corporate campus. That isolation, combined with the enormous park in the middle of the complex, led Cook compare it to “a national park” that “provides that kind of feeling.” 

He’s also big on the potential of AR: “We’re on the front end of AR. AR is exciting to me because, unlike VR that becomes all-encompassing, AR allows us to have a conversation.” Rumors have percolated for years that Apple has AR glasses in development; if such a product hits the market, Cook no doubt hopes it will prove as big a success as the iPhone and iPad, catalyzing whole new markets of apps and services. 

Facebook’s Existential Threat

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 40 states are accusing Facebook of anticompetitive practices; their ultimate argument is that the social-networking giant should be broken up. Facebook has pushed back against these lawsuits, which were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, by arguing that its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were already approved by the FTC years ago.

“The most important fact in this case, which the commission does not mention in its 53-page complaint, is that it cleared these acquisitions years ago,” Jennifer Newstead, Facebook’s general counsel, wrote in a statement reprinted in The New York Times. “The government now wants a do-over, sending a chilling warning to American business that no sale is ever final.”

Whatever the outcome of this particular fight, Facebook has the money and attorneys to ensure it drags on for years. An actual company breakup would represent a drastic outcome, as well as an existential crisis for Facebook, which relies on Instagram and WhatsApp to help grow its revenue and profits for years to come.