The battle over self-driving taxis has begun. Uber, the popular San Francisco-based ride-sharing company, has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop driverless car and mapping technology.
Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon is one of the top robotics universities in the world. Uber will be forming the “Uber Advanced Technologies Center” in Pittsburgh to work closely with Carnegie Mellon faculty and students.
Uber’s service currently relies on mapping technology created by Google, Apple and its own maps. Uber’s product chief, Jeff Holden, says Uber has been working on its own mapping technology and is now accelerating development.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Google Ventures is one of Uber’s biggest investors. The search giant’s venture capital arm invested $258 million in Uber in August 2013 – its largest investment ever – and put more money into Uber’s next funding round less than a year later. Google, of course, has been leading the development of self-driving cars.
According to Bloomberg, Google is creating its own ride-sharing service to compete directly with Uber. And Uber wants to directly compete with Google with self-driving vehicles. As Bloomberg points out, “there are signs that the companies are more likely to be ferocious competitors than allies.”
Here’s more from the Bloomberg report:
“At the Detroit auto show last month, Chris Urmson, the Google executive in charge of the project, articulated one possible scenario in which autonomous vehicles are patrolling neighborhoods to pick up and drop off passengers. “We’re thinking a lot about how in the long-term, this might become useful in people’s lives, and there are a lot of ways we can imagine this going,” Urmson said in a conference call with reporters on Jan. 14. “One is in the direction of the shared vehicle. The technology would be such that you can call up the vehicle and tell it where to go and then have it take you there.”
The Wall Street Journal, citing “a person familiar with the matter,” reports the news of Google developing an Uber rival “has been blown out of proportion” and that “a Google engineer has been testing an internal app that helps Google employees carpool to work, and the app isn’t associated with the company’s driverless cars program.”
But as Bloomberg points out, Uber’s dependence on Google goes well beyond capital.
“Google is a deep-pocketed, technically sophisticated competitor, and Uber’s dependence on the search giant goes far beyond capital. Uber’s smartphone applications for drivers and riders are based on Google Maps, which gives Google a fire hose of data about transportation patterns within cities. Uber would be crippled if it lost access to the industry-leading mapping application, and alternatives – such as AOL’s MapQuest, Apple Maps, and a host of regional players – are widely seen as inferior.
Google’s entrance into the ride-sharing market would also leave Uber without a partner in the suddenly plausible future in which cars without steering wheels roam the streets. Uber will either have to develop the technology itself or form an alliance with a company that can if it wants to offer autonomous vehicles within its fleet. Mercedes, Audi, Tesla, and other carmakers have said they are developing driverless cars, though it’s not clear that any is as advanced as Google’s.”