August 30, 2016      

Bumping headlights on the streets of San Francisco

Google’s Waze, the app that guides drivers turn by turn to their destinations, has just been given a new job: picking up riders and then driving them turn by turn to their destinations.

Any Waze-rider on their way to work can now connect with someone or some others going the same way to work or nearby location.

It’s a new chore for Waze but perfect-or nearly so-in allowing Alphabet Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) to jump behind the wheel to chase down Uber and Lyft in the lucrative, ride-sharing business.

Waze already directs tens of millions of users around traffic jams. And at 54 cents per mile is way cheaper than most riders pay to rivals Uber or Lyft. Google says it won’t add on any fees…for now.

Google told The Wall Street Journal it “began a pilot program around its California headquarters in May that enables several thousand area workers at specific firms to use the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters. It plans to open the program to all San Francisco-area Waze users this fall.”

For the time being, hitching a Waze ride to work or wherever will be strictly a three-way taxi war in San Francisco.

On the road to autonomous taxis?

It was back in February of 2015 that Bloomberg reported that Google was planning a ride-hailing app, with the intention of challenging Uber and Lyft.

Two years earlier (2013), Google’s venture arm, Google Ventures, put a $258 million investment into Uber, making it Google’s single largest investment deal ever. Not enough? The very next year Google stuffed more money into Uber’s already-stuffed wallet.

Of course, that was way back then in 2013.

Soon thereafter, David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer and member of Uber’s board, informed Uber that Google would now add to its Uber investor’s hat a stickpin that read, rival!

Also back in 2013, Google bought Waze, the Israeli-based app company, for $1 billion; the app maker soon thereafter developed a carpooling service called RideWith and tested it on the streets of Tel Aviv.

At the time, Google’s spokeswoman Julie Mossler said: “We are conducting a small, private beta test in Tel Aviv for a carpool concept…and we have nothing specific to announce at this time.”

With Google a fierce competitor and no longer just a big-time investor, any chance that Uber might dip into Google’s autonomous car development riches was gone.

Such a loss might well have been a factor that motivated Uber to invade Carnegie Mellon’s fabled robotics domain to poach autonomous car talent, which it did in 2015, luring away scads of talented engineers from is intended collaborator in self-driving technology. Timing seems about right.

Cruising in 2016

Jump ahead to 2016 and there is plenty to announce… and to see cruising the streets of San Francisco.

For now, reports the Silicon Valley Business Journal: Any Bay Area “Waze user can sign up as a driver, but ridership is limited to roughly 25,000 San Francisco-area employees of several large firms, including Google, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc. Riders are limited to two rides a day-intended to ferry them to and from work.”

Later, the paper reports that a Google source said: “In the planned expansion, anyone with the Waze app in the San Francisco area could sign up to be a rider or driver. Though Google currently doesn’t take a cut, the company is exploring different rates in Israel and San Francisco.”

Uber, Lyft, and Google went quiet after the today’s news broke.

Uber, which recently announced a $300 million deal with Volvo to develop self-driving cars, is valued at $68 billion. Lyft has been rumored to be a takeover target.