The app-based transportation company Uber faces a challenge from one of its biggest investors: Google. The search giant is preparing to offer its own ride-hailing service, most likely in conjunction with its driverless-car project.
Uber faces an ever-growing cast of adversaries that includes dubious regulators, litigious drivers, hostile members of the media and some well-funded rivals.
But the most significant threat to the app-based transportation company may be much closer to home: one of its biggest investors, Google.
Google Ventures, the search giant’s venture-capital arm, invested $258 million in Uber in August 2013. It was Google’s largest investment deal ever, and the company put more money into Uber’s next funding round less than a year later.
Back then, it was easy for observers to imagine Google partnering closely with Uber, or even one day acquiring it.
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David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate development, joined the Uber board of directors in 2013 and has served on it ever since.
Now there are signs that the companies are more likely to be ferocious competitors than allies.
Google is preparing to offer its own ride-hailing service, most likely in conjunction with its long-in-development driverless-car project.
Drummond has informed Uber’s board of this possibility, according to a person close to the Uber board, and Uber executives have seen screenshots of what appears to be a Google ride-sharing app that is currently being used by Google employees.
This person, who requested not to be named because the talks are private, said the Uber board is weighing whether to ask Drummond to resign his position as an Uber board member.
Uber has also reportedly initiated plans to open its own research facility in Pittsburgh to develop its own autonomous-vehicle technology, according to a report in TechCrunch.
The technology news site also reported that Uber has hired more than 50 scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and the affiliated National Robotics Engineering Center.
Google has made no secret of its ambitions to revolutionize transportation with autonomous vehicles. CEO Larry Page is said to be personally fascinated by the challenge of making cities operate more efficiently.
The company recently said the driverless-car technology in development within its Google X research lab is between two and five years from being ready for widespread use.
At the recent Detroit auto show, Chris Urmson, the Google executive in charge of the project, articulated one possible scenario in which autonomous vehicles are patrolling neighborhoods, picking up and dropping off passengers.
“We’re thinking a lot about how in the long term, this might become useful in people’s lives, and there are a lot of ways we can imagine this going,” Urmson said in a conference call with reporters on Jan. 14. “One is in the direction of the shared vehicle. The technology would be such that you can call up the vehicle and tell it where to go and then have it take you there.”
Those comments, according to the person familiar with deliberations of the Uber’s board, have left executives at Uber deeply concerned, and for good reason. Google is a deep-pocketed, technically sophisticated competitor, and Uber’s dependence on the search giant goes far beyond capital.
Uber’s smartphone applications for drivers and riders are based on Google Maps, which gives Google a fire hose of data about transportation patterns within cities.
Uber would be crippled if it lost access to the industry-leading mapping application, and the alternatives — such as AOL’s MapQuest, Apple Maps, and a host of regional players — are widely seen as inferior.
Google’s entrance into the ride-sharing market would also leave Uber without a partner in the suddenly plausible future where cars without steering wheels roam the streets.
Uber will either have to develop the technology itself or form an alliance with another company if it wanted to offer autonomous vehicles within its fleet.
Mercedes, Audi, Tesla, and other carmakers have said they are developing their own driverless cars, though it’s not yet clear whether any of them are as far along as Google.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment. An Uber spokesperson also declined to offer a comment for this article.