Uber has had a brutal last year. The company's culture has been critiqued from the inside and outside as sexist and fratty. The problems led to the ouster of a series of top executives, including founder Travis Kalanick. Even in trucking, Uber's acquisition of Otto has led to a lawsuit filed by Alphabet's self-driving car division, Waymo, related to the alleged theft of sensor technology. One Uber employee I know recently joked, "Uber's become a four-letter word."
I visited the company’s San Francisco office with Uber Freight’s product lead, Eric Berdinis. He’d come to Uber via Otto after a stint at Motorola working on the Moto 360 smartwatch, among other things. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, which makes him roughly 27 years old.
We walked the floor that is Berdinis’s domain. The engineering team is on the west side of the building, ops on the east. In the ops room, heat maps of America glowed on mounted televisions, showing where Uber is doing the most business. Texas was hot. This is certainly one of the places where software is nibbling away at the world.
Then we tucked into a conference room for an extensive interview. We talked through how to actually build “Uber for trucking,” what really hurts truckers, whether Otto oversold the speed at which self-driving trucks would arrive, and what drivers think of Travis Kalanick.
Alexis Madrigal: Let’s talk about Uber Freight and self-driving trucks. When Uber started, self-driving cars were pretty far away. When Uber Freight starts, perhaps self-driving trucks are not that far away. How much do you think self-driving trucks would change the economics for you guys?
Eric Berdinis: In my time at Otto, we did spend a decent amount of time thinking about the economics of trucking once it happens, even if it is a decade out. Now that I have been spending more time on the freight side, I haven’t been as close to that. But the teams are in communication about how these things might work together at some point.
Madrigal: And what is the relationship between the self-driving and Freight teams now?
Berdinis: They were born from a similar origin story. At least, I came from that team. The day-to-day workings are pretty separate. They are going down the path of finding their first customers and we’re scaling up the business and building the network. We’re in sync on what’s happening, but no active workstreams together like that.
Madrigal: Are you hearing from drivers that they are worried about it?
Berdinis: You see that come up every once in a while.
Madrigal: I know this isn’t what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis anymore, but how could you see the automation playing out?
Berdinis: I’ll first start by saying that one of the last things I worked on on the Otto side was the Otto-Budweister partnership and the video and the whole thing around that. Once I joined Uber Freight full time, I was thinking to myself, “We really made it seem like this thing was coming sooner than it is. We probably scared a lot of people. We kind of hyped this thing up.”