A report that Google is looking into developing a taxi service that could work with its self-driving cars could signal the souring of the technology giant's relationship with app-based transportation provider Uber. Google has been a major investor in Uber, and has an executive sitting on Uber's board of directors.
Bloomberg reported on Monday that David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate development who sits on Uber's board, has told fellow board members his company is working on a taxi service that could compete with Uber's. A source "close to the Uber board" told Bloomberg that the board is "now weighing whether to ask Drummond to resign his position as an Uber board member."
When we asked Google to comment on these reports, we were directed to a cryptic Tweet that Google made late Monday afternoon: "We think you'll find Uber and Lyft work quite well. We use them all the time."
Heading for a Collision?
Established in 2009, Uber has since expanded its ride-requesting app into markets around the world and raised $1.2 billion in funding. That includes a 2013 round of $258 million from TPG and Google's investment arm, Google Ventures.
Uber on Monday announced it was partnering with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to develop "key long-term technologies that advance Uber's mission of bringing safe, reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere." The partnership, which includes the creation of an Uber Advanced Technologies Center near the CMU campus, will conduct research in "the areas of mapping and vehicle safety and autonomy technology," Uber's announcement said.
It's those last two words -- "autonomy technology" -- that indicate that Uber, like Google, is interested in developing self-driving cars. That ambition, along with Google's reported interest in a taxi service of its own, suggests that the once-allied companies might be on track for a head-on collision in the fast-evolving transport tech marketplace.
A spokesperson at Carnegie Mellon University told us that Uber already has people working at the new center, which is a corporate facility separate from the university. He added that CMU has "a wealth of experience regarding autonomous navigation" that goes back decades. Some of the software used to drive NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, for instance, traces back to research at the university.
In 2007, Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing team, supported by GM, Caterpillar and Continental AG, won the $2 million DARPA Urban Challenge with a self-driving SUV named "Boss."
An Increasingly Crowded Race
Google and Uber are far from the only companies eyeing a bright future for self-driving cars. At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, for example, both Daimler and Audi grabbed attention by showing off their autonomous cars in action. (In Audi's case, its -- nicknamed "Jack" -- arrived in Vegas after driving itself the 560 miles from Silicon Valley.)
Late last year, Google unveiled its "first real build of our self-driving vehicle prototype." It's trying out the car on its Silicon Valley test track, and expects to take it out for real driving on the streets of Northern California this year.
By eyeing a taxi service that could go along with such a car, Google could add yet another bump in Uber's already increasingly rough road. Despite its rapid growth and huge coffers, Uber has faced criticism for its tactics with competitors and drivers, reports of driver assaults on passengers, head-butting with local regulatory agencies and its reported consideration of spying on reporters.
Image credit: Google/Waymo.
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