Uber is expanding its self-driving car research outside the US for the first time

Raquel Urtasun Uber TorontoUberRaquel Urtasun will lead Uber’s new research branch in Toronto.

On Monday, Uber plans to announce that it’s expanding its Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) outside of the United States for the first time with the opening of a new research center in Toronto.

The move sees Uber once again tapping into the wells of talent in academia, as it opens a research center right in the University of Toronto’s backyard.

While Uber’s ATG group oversees all aspects of its self-driving car and truck programs, the new Toronto R&D center won’t be focusing on building the physical cars or cameras, but on the artificial intelligence side of autonomous technologies.

At its helm will be University of Toronto researcher Raquel Urtasun, who is known for her work on artificial intelligence and machine perception, which helps cars “see” the road and know the difference between a human and a light pole, or a traffic cone and a small child.

In addition to opening the office, Uber has pledged to donate $US5 million over a number of years to the Vector Institute, a nonprofit research institution for artificial intelligence that was co-founded by Urtasun.

It’s not the first time Uber has plunked down a research center to lure talent from academia. This time, however, Uber seems to be taking a more thoughtful approach, compared to its controversial entrance into Pittsburgh.

In early 2015, Uber first announced that it was entering into a research agreement with Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University to work on its beginning efforts with self-driving vehicles. However, the research agreement turned into a poaching spree of over 40 engineers that “gutted” the department and left it in a “crisis”. Uber later donated $US5.5 million to the university to fund a new faculty chair and fellowships in what some saw as an apology.

While Uber is once again looking for talent at top schools, it appears to be doing it with the full endorsement of the University of Toronto and in a city that’s developed a reputation for leading artificial intelligence research.

Urtasun has already brought on an additional eight students and post-docs from the University of Toronto to join her team. She’ll continue as a professor at the university, and all students will be continuing their PhD work while at Uber, the company said.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research. That’s why we’re so pleased to see Professor Raquel Urtasun, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of machine perception, take on this incredibly exciting role,” said Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto, in a press release. “We are equally pleased that she will remain a professor at the University, continuing to support the University and the Vector Institute while promoting Toronto as the primary destination in the world for the best researchers in this fast-growing and critical field.”

The expansion comes at a time when Uber’s self-driving car research is facing challenges from rival Waymo, the self-driving car company spun out from Google. In February, Waymo sued Uber for patent infringement and intellectual property theft, with most of its claims revolving around the use of Lidar, a type of camera. Uber self-driving car boss Anthony Levandowski, the man at the center of the case, recently stepped aside as head of ATG and recused himself from any Lidar-related work. In her new role, Urtasun will report up to Levandowski regarding her teams’ artificial intelligence research.

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