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Uber Builds on Self-Driving Ambitions With Otto, a Trucking Start-Up

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber, the world’s largest ride-hailing network, has long envisioned a future of self-driving cars. Now that future could extend to the trucking industry.

On Thursday, Uber announced it had acquired Otto, a 90-person start-up focused on developing self-driving truck technology that aims to upend the trucking and shipping industry.

“More and more the world of atoms is interacting with bits,” Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber, said in a company blog post announcing the deal. “In order to provide digital services in the physical world, we must build sophisticated logistics, artificial intelligence and robotics systems that serve and elevate humanity.”

Uber would not comment on the terms of the acquisition. But according to a person briefed on the deal, Uber will pay roughly 1 percent of its most current valuation — a sum worth about $ 680 million after the inclusion of its most recent fund-raising — if certain internal benchmarks are met by the Otto team. Otto’s current shareholders will also be entitled to 20 percent of the profits of any self-driving trucking business the company is able to build over time.

The move is the most recent indication of Uber’s ambitions for autonomous vehicles that can provide services to both consumers and businesses. Self-driving vehicles would also help the company reduce its dependence on human drivers, which have proved to be the most expensive and legally vexing part of its growing business.

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In a test beginning later in the month, Uber users in Pittsburgh will be able to hail self-driving Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicles to get around the city. Credit Uber

And the acquisition of Otto adds to Uber’s growing bench of experts in autonomous vehicle research, an area in which the company is drastically behind some of its largest competitors, including Google.

Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, Otto’s co-founders, were veterans of Google’s car and mapping efforts before they started their company in January, and a number of former Google engineers work there. Mr. Levandowski has long been a key figure in autonomous vehicle research. In fact, he sold a start-up called 510 Systems to Google when it began its self-driving car project.

Over the last year, Uber has poached hundreds of former Google employees and has created a research facility in Pittsburgh dedicated to autonomous driving technology. A number of the researchers working there were hired from Carnegie Mellon University, where much of the early research on the technology was done.

Uber also announced the first fruits of its autonomous vehicle effort on Thursday: a partnership with Volvo, which will provide the first jointly developed vehicles to offer self-driving Uber rides on the streets of Pittsburgh.

In a test beginning later in the month, Uber users in Pittsburgh will be able to hail self-driving Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicles to get around the city. The two companies are also working together to develop a fully autonomous car ready for road deployment within five years and have committed $ 300 million to the effort.

Uber is not alone in its ambitions. Earlier this week, Ford Motor promised to develop its own fleet of autonomous vehicles for road use by 2021, to be deployed in a ride-hailing network as well. Lyft, another ride-hailing start-up, has similar ambitions, and is working closely with General Motors, a major investor in the company, to create a self-driving automobile.

The partnership between Volvo and Uber is not exclusive, and Uber has made it clear that it wants to work with automakers rather than build its own vehicles.

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