Futurists speculate that Uber's rideshare app and Google's robocars will someday merge. Image: Zack Sheppard/Flickr
In a major update to its mobile app, Google Maps will now integrate Uber's on-demand car service. That means when you're looking up the route from point A to B in certain cities, the app will show you the best way to drive, bike, walk, or Uber there. Choose option four, and a single tap launches your Uber app and hails you a black car.
That's an entire fourth mode of transport there folks, which speaks to what the Silicon Valley darlings may have in mind for the future—aside from being a smart and obvious PR move. Google Ventures is a major investor in Uber, so it's in the both companies' best interest to promote the app. It'll be interesting to see if the maps integration is a sweetheart deal for Uber, or if Google incorporates its competitor apps too: Lyft, Sidecar, and Hailo.
The venture firm poured $258 million into the startup last summer, propelling the company to its $3.5 billion valuation. That's Google's largest deal ever, sparking a swirl of speculation about Google's future intentions with the transportation startup.
One idea is that the company plans to build a system of autonomous, on-demand robotaxis. And, of course, completely upend the auto industry and urban transportation as we know it in the process.
An efficient fleet of robotaxis is an idea that exists, my colleague Alex Pasternack points out, somewhere in that murky, buzzy space between Silcon Valley utopianism and pipedream sci-fi. But the technology is moving in that direction. While neither Google nor Uber has actually come out and said that's the long-term plan—and given laws and standards, we're talking very long term—there are many signs pointing in that direction, and today's map update falls in line with such speculation.
Uber is already rattling the taxi industry and forcing a rethink of urban travel. The hot-headed startup is tangled up in regulatory battles with several cities and their taxi commissions, and Google could prove to be a powerful ally in that fight.
Google Maps will now prompt mobile users with the Uber app to "Get an Uber." Image: Google
Despite its legal troubles, Uber's also been wildly successful, which in the tech world is exemplified by the company's name transitioning from a noun to a verb, and sure enough, in the cities that haven't banned the rideshare app, people are now Ubering home from the party.
But as Slate once put it, "This is not just the future of yuppies getting a ride home from the bar. It’s a set of issues that has the potential to radically remake the American landscape."
Combine Uber's successful business model and add in a fleet of Google's future self-driving cars, and you can get a glimpse of a new transportation paradigm emerging, in which car ownership is no longer an expectation in modern society.
“Without car sharing, it could be argued that driverless cars just represent an incremental change for auto companies. Today’s companies would just make driverless rather than human-driven cars," Forbes wrote in an article titled Google Car + Uber = Killer App. "But if massive car sharing is enabled, the argument goes out the window."
It's not too far-fetched, though there are many hurdles to clear between now and then—from the very legality of autonomous vehicles to getting people comfortable with the idea of being driven around by a robot. However, anonymous sources told tech reporter Jessica Lessin in August that Google X is looking into designs for an autonomous “robo-taxi.”
“A fleet of self-driving cars would pick up passengers and work commuters on demand," she wrote. "Google believes that such systems could potentially reduce the need for people to own cars and reduce accidents."
TechCrunch illustrated this scenario nicely with its parody, "Dispatch from the Future," in which Uber purchases 2,500 driverless cars from Google for its fleet of robotaxis.
Just how far into the future is the question. David Krane, a partner at the Google Ventures VC firm, told Wired that building a fleet of cheap autonomous cabs isn't a conversation the two companies are having yet, and won't until the technology is ready. “That is many moons away," he said.
But cheap autonomous delivery vehicles might be fewer moons away. Uber is already rolling out a courier service, and has pulled a few PR stunts delivering things like flowers on Valentine's Day and ice cream in the dead of summer.
These make for great publicity, but could also serve as a sort of test-run for its future delivery business. By working with local merchants, the startup could potentially compete with the likes of Amazon and eBay. And surprise, surprise, Google also has a same-day delivery service in San Francisco: Shopping Express. It uses human drivers, of course. For now.
Experimenting with delivery makes a lot of sense for the early days of autonomous vehicles. (Read: Amazon’s drones.) Like so many breakout technologies, self-driving cars may need to take hold in the business sector and demonstrate an economic benefit before being marketed to consumers, to say nothing of usurping today’s public transit system in favor of ferrying passengers around on an as-needed basis, summoned with a smartphone app.
"It’s easy to imagine one day searching for a restaurant on Google Maps and seeing not just its location but the wiggling web of Ubers that could take you there," Wired wrote last year. Now that day is here. Will a wiggling web of autonomous robo-Ubers be next?