Google to overtake Uber with driverless cars, Uber to build its own robot car fleet

3 Feb 2015

The era of the driverless car wars is almost upon us as it has emerged Google not only plans to take on Uber with ride-sharing apps, but plans to make its fast-evolving driverless cars pivotal to the plan.

For its part Uber, valued at US$40bn and available in 200 cities in 53 countries worldwide, is opening a robotics research facility in Pittsburgh to build its own fleet of self-driving cars.

It emerged in recent days that Google had been looking into a future advertising model that actually brought consumers to the store.

Google – which ironically invested US$258m in Uber in 2013 via its Google Ventures investment vehicle – is believed to be preparing to offer its own ride-sharing service in conjunction with its driverless car project.

It is understood that Google’s legal counsel David Drummond, who sits on Uber’s board, has informed Uber that Google is working on a ride-sharing app which is actively being used by Google employees in San Francisco.

Collision course

Google’s self-driving car in action

The revelation by Bloomberg sets Google on an obvious collision course with Uber.

The fact that Google may be veering into the Uber fast lane is reminiscent of the split that saw Google chairman Eric Schmidt step down from the Apple board after Steve Jobs threatened to go “thermo nuclear” when Google’s plans to compete with the iPhone through Android became apparent.

It is likely that if Google continues on the route to ride-sharing apps – a no-brainer when driverless vehicles become more commonplace – Drummond will most likely have to step down from the Uber board.

Despite various scandals and clashes with taxi unions and city councils, Uber has succeeded in becoming an economic phenomenon in its own right. At the recent DLD15 conference in Munich CEO Travis Kalanick predicted that Uber will create 50,000 jobs in Europe and take 400,000 cars off the road.

Google recently proved that its cars are now capable of handling unpredictable drivers and pedestrians on city streets.

In recent weeks Google revealed it is in discussions with motor giants Ford, Toyota, Daimler, Volkswagen and General Motors to bring self-driving cars to market by 2020.

In recent weeks, Google revealed its latest autonomous vehicles with built-in intelligence and sensors that take note of pedestrians likely to cross the street, for example.

In 1,126,500 kilometres (700,000 miles) of test driving on public roads, Google cars have so far avoided causing any accidents. Ironically, the cars themselves have been hit by other vehicles driven by humans.

The idea of being able to beckon a driverless vehicle to bring you to home or to work via smartphone apps is a logical extension of this technology that may be coming sooner than we think.

However, it could spell bad news for Uber especially because Uber’s service is built on Google Maps.

For its part Google has tried to diffuse speculation and in a tweet glibly said: “We think you’ll find Uber and Lyft work quite well. We use them all the time.”

Uber robotics

But it looks like Uber is going to be ready no matter what Google throws at it. According to TechCrunch the company is in the process of building a robotics research lab in Pittsburgh to create its own fleet of autonomous vehicles.

It is understood Uber is hiring more than 50 scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. Carnegie Mellon is the home of the Mars Rover.

Uber plans to develop the core technology, vehicles and infrastructure to create a global fleet of self-driving cars to replace human drivers.

Self-driving cars image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years