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Google may launch its own ride-sharing app against Uber

Uber is one company that never seems to be out of news – for all sorts of reasons. The latest one: search giant Google is reported to be prepping its own ride-hailing service and join the growing list of Uber competitors.

But there is a twist in this tale: Google was not exactly supposed to be a rival to Uber; rather, its venture capital arm, Google Ventures, had invested as much as $258 million in Uber in 2013.

Uber is one company that never seems to be out of news – for all sorts of reasons. The latest one: search giant Google is reported to be prepping its own ride-hailing service and join the growing list of Uber competitors.

But there is a twist in this tale: Google was not exactly supposed to be a rival to Uber; rather, its venture capital arm, Google Ventures, had invested as much as $258 million in Uber in 2013.

Around that time, there was talk that the two companies were close partners, with some folks conjecturing that Google might one day buy out Uber completely. In fact, 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.

But things don’t seem to be turning out as predicted earlier.

The news of Google pitching itself as a direct rival to Uber was first reported by Bloomberg. It says, “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 now weighing whether to ask Drummond to resign his position as an Uber board member.”

According to a separate report by TechCrunch, Uber is said to be teaming up with Carnegie Mellon University for a research facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to develop its own autonomous vehicle technology.

On its part, Google’s extensive research and keen interest into driverless cars are already well-known to everyone. But actual commercialisation of the technology is many years off. The Bloomber report quotes Chris Urmson, the Google exec said to be in charge of the project, as hinting at the link between the driverless cars project and the growing use of shared cab services. According to Urmson, one of the scenarios in which driverless cars would be used in the future would be as shared vehicles for picking up and dropping off people at their chosen locations.

The Bloomberg report notes that according to the person familiar with deliberations of the Uber’s board, Urmson’s comments have left executives at Uber deeply concerned—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 alternatives—such as AOL’s MapQuest, Apple Maps, and a host of regional players—are widely seen as inferior,” it says.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, is reported to have publicly discussed what he sees as the inevitability of autonomous taxis, saying they could offer cheaper rides and a true alternative to vehicle ownership. “The Uber experience is expensive because it’s not just the car but the other dude in the car,” he said at a technology conference in 2014, referring to the expense of paying human drivers. “When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost [of taking an Uber] gets cheaper than owning a vehicle.”

The Bloomberg report points to another sign of rift between the two companies. Recently, Google announced it would start presenting data from these third party applications inside Google Now: Pandora, AirBnb, Zillow, and Lyft. The last one, Lyft, is a rival to Uber, whose name itself is said to be missing from the announcement.

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