The Wall Street Journal: Is Uber a friend or foe of Carnegie Mellon in robotics?

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University is scrambling to recover after Uber Technologies Inc. poached at least 40 of its researchers and scientists earlier this year, a raid that has left one of the world’s top robotics research institutions in a crisis.

In February, Carnegie Mellon and Uber trumpeted a strategic partnership in which the school would “work closely” with the taxi-hailing service to develop driverless car technology.

But behind the scenes, the tie-up was more combative than collaborative.

Uber envisions autonomous cars that could someday replace its tens of thousands of contract drivers. With virtually no in-house capability, the San Francisco company went to the one place in the world with enough talent to build a team instantly: Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center.

Flush with cash after raising more than $5 billion from investors, Uber offered some scientists bonuses of hundreds of thousands of dollars and a doubling of salaries to staff the company’s new tech center in Pittsburgh, according to one researcher at NREC.

The hiring spree in January and February set off alarm bells. Facing a massive drain of talent and cash, Herman Herman, the newly elevated director of the NREC, made a presentation May 6 to staff to explain the situation and seek ideas on how to stabilize the center, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The short presentation at the school here laid out the issues. In all, Uber took six principal investigators and 34 engineers. The talent included NREC’s director, Tony Stentz, and most of the key program directors. Before Uber’s recruiting, NREC had more than 100 engineers and scientists developing technology for companies and the U.S. military.

“If you want to do autonomous vehicles—we have a lot of people here doing that,” said Jeff Legault, the head of business development for NREC, in an interview. “I would have preferred [Uber] just come to us” to develop the vehicle rather than hire away scientists.”

An expanded version of this report is available at WSJ.com

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