Google versus Uber is great news for the robot car business

There’s nothing like a little competition to drive technological innovation, and consumers win either way

Uber app displayed on an iPhone with traffic in the background

(Oli Scarff/Getty)

Bloomberg dropped a shocker-but-not-really-a-shocker on Monday with an exclusive report that Google is getting ready to compete against Uber with its own ride-sharing service.

David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate development, has informed Uber’s board—on which he sits—that the search company is indeed preparing such an app, according to the report.

That’s causing understandable friction between the firms, despite the fact that Google invested $258 million (U.S.) in Uber in 2013. Uber is now considering asking Drummond to resign from its board.

Google wanting into ride-sharing should come as no surprise, given its ongoing autonomous car project. Combining ride-sharing apps with robot vehicles is a no-brainer—they’re like chocolate and peanut butter. I asked Justin Raymond, ex-Canadian president of now-defunct-in-North-America Uber competitor Hailo, about it back in 2012.

As if to put an exclamation point on that, Uber is also getting into robot cars. The company on Monday announced a joint “Advanced Technologies Center” with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh:

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.

Google versus Uber is shaping up to be a real clash of the titans. While Google dwarfs the upstart in terms of value—a market capitalization of approximately $367 billion to Uber’s valuation of $18 billion (it’s not yet a public company)—the newer firm is growing rapidly. Uber’s revenue increased 300% last year and is expected to duplicate the feat again in 2015, which are growth rates very few companies in history have managed to achieve.

Until now, Google had only traditional—and exceptionally conservative—car makers to worry about when it came to robot cars. With a company as ambitious as Uber, the race is officially on.

A number of car makers had predicted that they’d have autonomous vehicles in the market by 2020. That timeline may have just moved up.