Uber versus Google: Far from self-driving competition

Google-vs-UberSo what happens when on the same day, Uber announces that it is investing heavily in self-driving cars and Google is rumoured to be developing a ride sharing app? Media chaos focussing on a forthcoming robot war between Google and Uber over travellers.

The media decided Uber was going to replace its drivers with robots. Of course, what Uber said was:

The partnership will provide a forum for Uber technology leaders to work closely with CMU faculty, staff, and students — both on campus and at the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) — to do research and development, primarily in the areas of mapping and vehicle safety and autonomy technology.

Now that “could” include self-driving cars but there is much more to safety and autonomy than that. Indeed, how about we go for the common sense solution first. Uber are currently and for the foreseeable future in the business of recruiting drivers. To be thinking about replacing them when, let’s face it, the barriers to doing so are still pretty high, is ludicrous. So guess what, chances are they are not doing that.

Instead, since the main regulatory barrier to Uber’s current business is the issue of safety, why not show the way by investing heavily in safety and making the whole ride sharing thing — that still involve human drivers — better and safer. It should not surprise us that such a thing may involve autonomous elements that assist in keeping drivers on the road longer. But how that will all play out is far off, and even further off when you think about robots.

The media also decided that Google’s potential entry into ride sharing was all about self-driving cars. But, for the reasons outlined above, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. At least not yet. Instead, if the media had their heads on they would have focussed on Google Now and Google Maps as the likely reason Google might experiment with ride sharing. They have the tech to bring cars to where the demand likely is and use people’s own calendars to manage quantity rather than relying on surge pricing. In other words, Google may have the ability to better predict taxi demand than anyone else. That is something possible right now so long as Google actually start experimenting. So it is hardly a surprise they might do so.

To be sure, there is potential here for competition between Google and Uber. It also could be some form of cooperation. It is hard to tell from these, surely coincidental, news stories.

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