Much has been made about Google’s $258 million investment in Uber, the car-service mobile app. Clearly this must have something to do with Google’s plans for autonomous vehicles.
Imagine, a self-driving car you can hail with your smartphone. Even if that is the future, it’s years away from implementation. Even if Google (GOOG) and other companies are close to developing the technology to enable autonomous vehicles, there are legal issues to contend with. The most likely path toward self-driving cars will be incremental—first they’ll park for us, then keep us in our lanes, until one day we look up and realize we’re not really driving at all anymore. (Although, who knows, by that point we may all be so used to the Hyperloop that cars themselves may seem passé.)
In the meantime, though, Google’s expertise in dealing with the government could be a big help to Uber, a company that has inspired hostile responses from car services in many of its most important markets. Uber, and other apps that allow people to arrange car services, at one point faced near-universal opposition by local regulators. Recently the apps have enjoyed some victories. Regulators in California recently released a proposal to allow companies like Uber to operate legally, and New York is running a one-year pilot program for taxi-hailing apps.
Still, more wrangling with public officials seems inevitable. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, has proven to be an enthusiastic battler in the public sphere. But Google, which spent $18.2 million on lobbying last year, is on another level.
So we may one day see the Uber-enabled smart cars. But the more noticeable impact of Google’s interest in Uber may be that people can use the app to arrange rides in cars driven by plain old humans.