It Looks Like Uber Is Beating Google To The Self Driving Car

Autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars whatever you want to call them, they’re coming and they’re coming soon. Companies like Google and Tesla have been testing these babies for years now. Billions of dollars of research and practical experimentation have gone in to this endeavour. But the first real self driving car may come from none of them. It may come from Uber.

A couple of years ago Uber was just a German word associated with Nietzsche and Hitler. Now it’s a company worth $62.5 billion. It revolutionized transported and created thousands of new jobs around the world. And now it’s going to make the self driving car a reality.

Uber's self driving Ford Fusion
Uber’s self driving Ford Fusion

This Thursday Uber announced a $300 million deal with Volvo to put a fleet of self driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh. Uber has a self driving research facility there and could easily communicate with any of its subjects if something went wrong. What Uber is doing differently from Google is that they are allowing passengers to sit in the car.

There’s still a driver behind the wheel though because the self driving system still has holes. For instance Uber’s self driving cars can’t go over bridges and Pittsburgh has over 500. Google only allows a driver in the car to handle any malfunction; it has the option to include a passenger but has never done so. The company is not leaving its customers out of the loop obviously; select customers can opt for a test program and order a ride in a self driving Ford Fusion.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

CEO Travis Kalanick emphasized that this isn’t a side project or a gimmick but the real way forward for Uber. “This is everything. This is all the marbles for Uber.”, he said. He’s been working on this for nearly two years now, ever since he flew out to Pittsburgh in 2014.

If successful, the cost of a ride in an Uber car would reduce to less than a ride in your own. Of course, this would mean firing or “re-assigning” all one million of Uber’s current drivers. There’s a lot of legal work involved in this as well. State laws would have to be changed that mention there must always be a driver behind the wheel of a moving car. Entirely new laws would have to be written to account for who to blame in case of an accident.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Five Levels of Autonomy

Google Vs. Uber

As of late it has become clear that Uber wants to be its own entity, not relying on other companies, i.e Google, for anything. Earlier this year the company announced that it was throwing $500 million at the development of its own mapping system. This, it said, would make pick ups and drop offs more accurate as the system would automatically absorb information from the route taken by a driver or an exact location specified by a customer. Uber has also acquired Otto, a company focused on automating the 4.3 million commercial trucks on America’s highways.

Uber is acquiring Otto, a startup focused on the automation of America's 4.3 million commercial trucks
Uber is acquiring Otto, a startup focused on the automation of America’s 4.3 million commercial trucks

But Google has the clear advantage. It’s been working on its self driving car system for almost a decade now. Google’s autonomous vehicles have driven over 1.8 million miles and its deep learning software is probably the best in the world right now. Google recently showed off how it used that software to make its data centers 15% more efficient. Imagine what that endless cycle of feedback loops could do for self driving cars.

Google also has the largest repository of information in the world. It has the world’s most popular search engine after all. Also, Google is developing an OS called Fuchsia that is specifically designed to absorb information from its surroundings, hence it would be perfect for autonomous vehicles.

The one key difference between them is that for Google, it’s a part of their whole business, for Uber, it is the whole business. And Travis Kalanick knows this.

“If Uber wants to catch up to Google and be the leader in autonomy, we have to have the best minds…We have to have all the great minds.”

-Travis Kalanick