Uber launching Toronto branch of self-driving car research group

Uber will open a new research hub in Toronto dedicated to perfecting the self-driving car, joining their two other American research centres in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

A.I. specialist and University of Toronto professor Raquel Urtasun to lead new shop

Raquel Urtasun, a University of Toronto professor and Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning and Computer Vision, has been tapped to run Uber's new Toronto outpost. (Martin Lipman/NSERC)

Attention, A.I. specialists: Uber's hiring.

The hyper-disruptive ride-hailing company announced Monday they will open a new research hub in Toronto dedicated to perfecting the self-driving car, joining their two other American research centres in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

​​At the helm of the new shop is Raquel Urtasun, a University of Toronto professor well-known for her research on machine perception and the software that allows self-driving cars to "see" the objects around them.

Uber's release also promised to hire "dozens" of researchers in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor to help flesh out the project.

"Self-driving technology promises to make our roads safer, our environment healthier and our cities more livable … we couldn't be more excited about what's next. " wrote Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in his blog post about the news.

Uber is one of several high-profile tech companies seeking to make human drivers a thing of the past. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

It's been a promising few months for Toronto's A.I. industry.

Uber's new hub will have strong ties to the recently announced Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a research facility being funded in part by the provincial and federal governments that aims to put Canada back at the front of the pack of global A.I. research.

As part of Monday's announcement, Uber made a multi-year pledge to give at least $5 million a year to the fledgling institute.

Urtasun, who will remain a professor at U of T, is also a founding member of the Vector Institute.

Uber and Google facing off in self-driving car lawsuit

Uber's push to get autonomous vehicles on the road as soon as possible puts them in competition with tech giants like Tesla and Google.

The race is not without speed bumps: in March, a self-driving Uber SUV that was being tested in Tempe, Arizona, was involved in a collision and flipped onto its side. Police later found that the self-driving car was obeying the law.

A self-driven Volvo SUV owned and operated by Uber Technologies Inc. was flipped on its side after a collision in Arizona on March 24, 2017. Police found that the autonomous vehicle was not at fault for the collision. (Mark Beach/Fresco News handout via Reuters)

Other companies have dealt with similar incidents: In 2016, the driver of a Tesla Model S car was killed while his car was in autopilot mode when the car's cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from the brightly-lit sky.

Uber has also faced legal challenges as their research progresses.

In February, Waymo, the Google-founded company that runs their self-driving car research, filed a lawsuit against Uber over the alleged theft of pivotal technology.

​​​​The company's complaint says that former Waymo executive Anthony Levandowski stole trade secrets when he left and used them to found his own startup, called Otto, which was acquired by Uber in 2016. Uber denies the allegation.

Meanwhile, they are pressing forward: Uber has already put out job postings for software engineers in Toronto. 

A fleet of Uber's Ford Fusion self driving cars are shown during a demonstration of self-driving automotive technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 13, 2016. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)