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Google’s Driverless Uber Rival: Why it makes perfect sense

OPINION Reports suggest Google is working on a driverless Uber rival. Andy Vandervell looks at the implications for Google and the rest of us.

Is Google working on an Uber rival? That’s the suggestion from a recent Bloomberg report, which says that a Google exec who sits on the Uber board has informed them of the possibility and that the Uber board is pondering whether to ask said exec to leave the board.

Bloomberg cites a source that’s “close to the Uber board” so we have to be a little tentative, but the detail of the report makes it more credible than your typical blurry-photo-of-a-phone rumour. And, of course, being an Uber investor, Google already has an interest in this area.

Google’s only response so far was a comment on its official account where it said: “We think you’ll find Uber and Lyft work quite well. We use them all the time.”

I’d call that a non-denial denial – it’s a passive aggressive way of saying “we don’t comment on rumours.” But the reason it’s such an interesting story is that, once you think about it, it makes a whole lot of sense. Here’s why and what it could mean for us.

1. A driverless taxi service is a natural next step for Google
Google is already looking to reinvent the way we drive – or don’t drive – with its driverless car program. Using its driverless cars to form a driverless taxi service seems like a natural extension of the program.

It would give an arguably niche, experimental product a genuine revenue-driving purpose – the kind that would help Google wean itself off its near total reliance on online advertising revenue.

2. It hooks perfectly into Google’s ecosystem
When you look at some of Google’s most important products, such as Google Maps and Google Now, they both have a predictive element. Google is all about using your location and what it knows about you to recommend things, whether it’s how to get home or what’s going on near you. It already integrates Uber, but surely Google would prefer to profit directly from helping you get about than passing the proceeds onto a third-party like Uber?

3. Uber already believes driverless taxis are the future
Oh the irony, then, that Uber’s CEO has already discussed the possibility of driverless taxis. At the Code Conference in March 2014 he said that driverless cars would make Uber much cheaper:

“When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.” He added that driverless taxis are a long way off, which seems obvious enough, but I fancy Google has a better chance of producing one than Uber does.

4. Couldn’t Google just buy Uber?

Probably, yes. It’s already an investor and has someone on the board after all. However, owning Uber would present some problems, too. Its notorious reputation probably wouldn’t sit well with Google’s PR team, and would Google really want the hassle of handling the transition to driverless taxis and irritating thousands of Uber drivers in the process? Sounds like more trouble than it’s worth to me.

Related: Driverless Cars: What you need to know

5. Whatever happens, now isn’t the time to become a taxi driver

We’re probably years away from driverless taxis becoming a reality, but it’s yet another example of how automation could kill traditional jobs in the future. We’ve already seen experiments in ‘robots’ writing news reports, so perhaps I’ll be joining taxi drivers on the unwanted scrap heap? Excuse me while I brush up my CV. Perhaps I should add “works well with our robot overlords” to the skills section? I’m with Bill Gates on this one.

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