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Weekly Trend: In Race for Driverless Car, It’s Uber Versus Google

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776
How robotic integration is transforming modern industries

It has been no secret that Google has been developing a driverless car that will be based, in part, on a much-more-detailed version of its now-ubiquitous mapping software. It has also been no secret that Google is a major financial backer of the equally ubiquitous car service app Uber—an investment that likely has paid dividends to all parties involved as Uber is now valued at $41 billion.

Yet, recent moves by both companies may sour relations as both race for what they see as the future: a autonomous car that consumers can hail from an app.

Bloomberg reports that Google has begun preparations to pair its driverless car program with a ride-hailing capability. During the Detroit Auto Show, a Google executive reportedly in charge of the driverless car project said of the technology “one is in the direction of the shared vehicle. The technology would be such that you can call up the [driverless car] and tell it where to go and then have it take you there.”

This came on the heels of remarks by Google CEO Larry Page indicating his “fascination” with smart city technologies and efficient urban living. The New York Times adds that Google’s focus on projects such as Google Shopping Express, which offers customers in pilot cities the ability to order goods with same day delivery, is an indication of Google’s keen interest service-delivery applications. Indeed, even Uber has as begun experimenting with delivery services ranging from groceries to puppies on certain occasions, indicating that Google and Uber are not far apart with how they view the future of on-demand car services.

Not content to sit idle and wait for Google to catch up, TechCrunch writes that Uber has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to develop an “autonomous taxi fleet.” According to sources, Uber has outright “cleaned out” the Robotics Institute of top engineers and hired them onto the semi-secret self-driving car project that will be kept in Pittsburgh near CMU to avoid the limelight of Silicon Valley.

The incentive for Uber is obvious: Without a human at the wheel, the cost of operations drops dramatically. This would potentially increase demand for Uber’s services many fold—even over its current international footprint.

In the end, both Google and Uber have plenty of incentive to be the first to offer a viable autonomous car fleet. As Vox explains, driverless taxis have the potential to usher in an era of efficient fuel economies, reduced traffic congestion and greater efficiency for the middle class that could be freed of the chores of maintenance and gas purchases.

The first company to bring this potential future into reality would stand to profit immensely, and even the most mutually beneficial partnerships would be put under strain in the face of that eventuality.

First, however, both companies will have overcome cautious regulators that have only begun to discuss the reality of drones—how long until autonomous cars are allowed on the average street?

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776

Peter is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer with a Master's Degree in Public Policy from American University. In addition to startups, Peter likes coffee, books and whiskey.