There’s a lot to unpack in the news, broken by The Wall Street Journal, that Uber is trying to sell a $1 billion stake in its beleaguered autonomous vehicle unit to a consortium of outside investors, including an unnamed automaker.
Selling equity stakes in such R&D efforts is common. Alphabet’s Waymo is trying, too. If Uber ends up doing the deal, which reportedly would value the unit at more than $5 billion, it might be the biggest accomplishment of CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s tenure. Why? Because the unit has been a money pit for Uber and the source of thousands of bad headlines. And it’s too soon to know if it will be able to develop a driverless robotaxi worthy of ferrying real customers.
The reported leader of the group investment is Uber’s biggest shareholder, SoftBank. By putting money separately into the Uber unit and bringing on other investors, SoftBank could make Uber look better for an upcoming IPO and help Softbank in the process, so this is logical. (Reuters reported Thursday that Uber is expected to publicly file its IPO paperwork next month.) The likeliest automaker to join SoftBank in the purchase of a stake is Toyota. Last year Toyota bought a small equity stake in Uber. Toyota has its own proprietary efforts around automating vehicles, but its R&D leader Gill Pratt has been among the most cautious in terms of predicting when the tech, and robotaxis in particular, would be ready for prime time.