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The next taxi evolution may be to eliminate the driver.
Google Ventures is one of Uber’s biggest investors, and David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate development, has been a member of the Uber board of directors since 2013. According to a report by Bloomberg, Drummond informed the Uber board of the possible conflict of Google going into the ride-hailing business, in conjunction with its long-awaited driverless car project.
Reports put the self-driving car project between two-to-five years away from widespread use, but early looks at the technology have been impressive. If Google is able to step into the ride-hailing space and combine it with the self-driving technology, it would have a distinct advantage over start ups like Uber. For one, Uber’s mapping technology is based off Google Maps, giving the tech giant a wealth of data on the patterns of ride-hailing traffic in various cities. If Google chooses to go head-to-head, that would also leave Uber partnerless in an automated vehicle future.
To that end, Uber announced today that it has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to research its own autonomous vehicle technology at a facility in Pittsburgh. What’s clear, even if Google is being coy about its entry into the market, is that the driver-free technology in car-hail is the next big step, and any company in the field is looking there to make a game-changing move. At last month’s Detroit Auto Show, Chris Urmson, Google’s executive in charge of the self-driving car project, described one scenario for autonomous vehicles in the car-hail market.
“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.”
Uber and Google declined to comment on Bloomberg’s article, although Google did offer a cryptic tweet.
Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick has pointed out in the past that once you eliminate the driver, the cost of an Uber would go down.
“The Uber experience is expensive because it’s not just the car but the other dude in the car,” said Kalanick at a 2014 technology conference. “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost [of taking an Uber] gets cheaper than owning a vehicle.”
Of course, you have to have a vehicle without a driver to make that work. Whichever company gets there first, and safely, will likely reap the rewards.
A former YouTube reporter for the Daily Dot, Rae Votta has more than a decade of experience in the digital and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared on AOL, Huffington Post, Out Magazine, Logo, VH1, Current TV, Billboard, and NYMag. She joined Netflix in 2016.