Google’s self-driving cars cut a dash, as VC arm invests in car-app start-up Uber

26 Aug 2013

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman; Google; Larry Page, Google co-founder and CEO; and Sergey Brin, Google co-founder, in the self-driving converted Toyota Prius hybrid car pioneered by the technology giant

Google Ventures, the venture capital leg of the search engine giant, has led a US$258m financing round in the on-demand car app start-up Uber. The latter is a San Francisco, California, company that has come up with a mobile app to allow people book luxury vehicles on-demand. Uber seems to be eyeing up self-driving cars, which could spell a suitable fit for Google’s car technology.

Uber, which was founded in 2009, closed the financing round over the weekend. Its app is now used in some 35 cities around the globe.

Uber’s co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick penned a blog post to confirm the company’s most recent financing round was US$258m, with participation from TPG Capital. The likes of Goldman Sachs, Menlo and First Round Capital are already investors in Uber.

The latest funding round means that David Drummond, Google’s senior-vice-president of Corporate Development and chief legal officer, will be joining the Uber board. David Bonderman, founding partner of TPG, will also be joining the Uber board.

Via its blog, Uber said its goal is to build a technology company that transforms transportation and logistics in urban centres around the world.

Fuelling the future

Kalanick said the financing round would be used to help Uber expand into new markets, speed up customer and driver acquisition, and fight off what it termed as “protectionist, anti-competitive efforts”.

Describing Google as a “technology powerhouse”, Kalanick said Uber looks to both the technology company and to Google Ventures for the “strategic connectivity to their product initiatives alongside the expertise that comes with evangelising new technology with governments and regulatory bodies around the world”.

He spoke about Google’s product suite ranging from Google Maps to Android to self-driving vehicles.

As a result of the funding round, it seems that Google’s Drummond will be helping steer Uber and provide it with strategic advice as the start-up targets Europe and Asia.

Already, Uber has indicated its plans to go down the route of non-taxi car-sharing. Is this where the self-driving car could come in, perhaps?

The self-driving car: from technological innovation to the consumer – one day?

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have been working on Brin’s driverless car vision for some years now, with Google first revealing the technology in 2010.

At the time, software engineer Sebastian Thrun, who is a Google VP, entrepreneur (co-founder of Udacity) and research professor at Stanford University, wrote on the Google Blog: “Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology.

“And one of the big problems we’re working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use,” he said.

In December 2011, Google was awarded a US patent to switch cars from human-controlled mode into driverless mode, so cars could self-drive. Google had filed for the patent earlier that year, in May 2011.

The patent filing for the Google innovation at the time alluded to how the self-driving car would feature radar sensors, artificial intelligence and GPS video cameras to allow the car to navigate through the streets.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic