A year ago, François Sillion gave us a tour of the brand new premises of his Advanced Technologies Center in Paris. Bespoke offices to accommodate the small team of researchers responsible for developing software tools for the Uber Air flying taxi service.
But the adventure came to a halt last December. Struck by the pandemic, Uber had to make choices. After layoffs in the spring of 2020, it ended its most hypothetical entities. Exit the autonomous car division, sold to Aurora, and goodbye Uber Air.
“Uber wanted to reposition itself on its strategic heart of activity: VTC and delivery, knowing the VTC sector is very affected by the pandemic since travel is limited”, explained Rym Saker, director of communications for Uber in France.
The decision was then taken to sell the Uber Elevate entity to the start-up Joby Aviation. The Parisian center was immediately closed and its nine employees were subject to economic redundancies.
“Uber preferred to outsource Uber Elevate. This is clever. But I regret that the company has abandoned its technological vision and its research activity to satisfy a short-term financial logic. He threw the baby out with the bathwater ”, testifies François Sillion.
A “huge frustration” for the team
After 25 years at the service of public institutes such as the CNRS or INRIA (National Institute for Research in Digital Sciences and Technologies), of which he was the interim CEO, this computer vision specialist had joined Uber with the satisfaction of finally rubbing shoulders with the company. He dreamed of seeing his work come to fruition. But the ax fell too soon, without his being able to complete the projects initiated.
“Closing our center just a year and a half after its launch is a huge waste. I recruited 12 people from different countries, some of whom had left very good positions. There were three doctoral students who had started their work. We had increased the number of partnerships and agreements with academia and European industry and even a chair with Polytechnique ”, lists with sadness François Sillion.
The impossibility of continuing the project
“We thought about being bought out or taking over the business ourselves. But Uber refused on grounds of intellectual property. As for the prospects for reclassification, they were not really serious ”, he slips. “The only thing we hope for now is to be able to publish our research anyway. But this is not obvious. When submitting articles to scientific journals, it is necessary to be able to provide additional information when the reviewers so request. However, the center was closed very quickly in December and we no longer have access to the code ”.
Uber’s future ambitions for flying taxis are not all buried.
“Uber remains a multimodal mobility platform which will later be able to integrate e-VTOLs”, confirms Rym Saker.
Despite everything, it is a question of stopping internal research in this area. Uber’s priority now lies elsewhere.
“We are diversifying the services offered. After the delivery of meals, Uber Eats expanded to groceries, alcoholic beverages or flowers in France, pharmacy in the United States. Our strategy is the Go and Get. The Go for mobility, and the Get for what comes to the user “, adds the spokesperson for Uber.
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François Sillion does not necessarily say he was scalded by this experience. He remains convinced that the recent opening up of French researchers to the business world is necessary and must continue. Even if it means sometimes finding himself, as in his case, confronted with a real ” culture shock ” and a huge feeling of waste.