Will Google or Uber Rule the Driverless Road?

It’s Uber vs. Google for the future of the automated taxi industry. 

Google has been toying around with the idea of a driverless car for years. From reports of a fake one wreaking havoc on NYC streets, to reports that prototypes can’t handle snow, rain, or even recognize pedestrians, the possibility of a driverless car has been met with a mix of healthy skepticism and unjustified scorn. And yet Google has been barreling ahead with the technology. But it’s not just the technology. It’s becoming clear how Google might actually use the technology and the folks over at Uber have reason to be nervous – also angry.

It was revealed by Bloomberg yesterday that Google, which has been an investor in the hugely successful taxi start-up, is working on plans for its own taxi service – one that would rival Uber and rely on the driverless car technology that Google has been quietly perfecting over the past few years. Already, Google employees have been using the technology on the Google campus, and Google has shown some of the technology to Uber. Uber, which has Google’s Chief Legal Officer serving on its board, might even ask him to resign the position, given that the two are now set to become competitors if there is another disruption in the taxi industry.

While Google is aware of the current limitations of the technology (e.g. the not being able to deal with snow or rain), it believes it can iron out those problems within the next two to five years, and has even met with carmakers in Detroit about working together on the first large line of driverless cars. Uber, in response, has formed a partnership with the robotic department at Carnegie Mellon, pitting the two companies in a race to see who can crowd the streets first with driverless cars.

The idea of autonomous cars circling neighborhoods and waiting for passengers seems like science fiction, but the very fact that Google is investing so much time and energy in the project shows that it’s not intended to be a niche product like Google Glass, but one that could transform how we navigate urban spaces. With cars becoming less and less worthwhile to own in cities, taxis will come to supplement public transit even more than they have in the past. Imagine a cross-town driverless cab ride that only costs marginally more than bus fare.

Google seemed incredibly bullish about the technology when speaking at the Detroit Auto Show last month, and seems prepared to have their edge in driverless technology lead to a greater advantage in the race to dominate the taxi industry. Uber, on the other hand, is now playing catch-up – a start-up that now finds itself falling behind in a field it thought it had figured out only a few weeks ago.

Already, California, Michigan, Florida, and Nevada have allowed testing of driverless cars in their states. Considering that driverless have been safer than an actually manned car for years now, it only seems like a matter of time until driverless cars are an actual reality on American streets. But which company will be pushing those remote buttons remains to be seen. The battle for driverless car supremacy has just begun.

Photos by Audi USA/Wikimedia Commons