Many of us already have seen the distinctive Google mapping cars rolling down the street, with their spinning 360-degree video towers on their roofs.
But drivers and pedestrians alike will soon see that Uber is doing the same thing with its own fleet of geo-mapping vehicles. The San Francisco-based ride-hailing service wants to move into its own lane, so to speak, and relinquish dependence on Google Maps for geo-positioning of its member vehicles.
Thus Uber is allocating a whopping $500 million into the global mapping project that becomes Phase 1 of its strategy to pave the way for driverless cars. Uber wants to be the first such company to have driverless vehicles pick up customers and transport them to their destinations, using the new-generation geo-mapping system—which it intends to be a lot more accurate than Google's.
Google, Uber Once Were Partners
In fact, Google was an early investor in Uber, but the two companies have avoided working closely together and are now developing competing technologies for driverless cars.
In 2015, Uber hired away from Google one of the world's leading digital mapping experts, Brian McClendon, who had run Google Maps and helped create Google Earth. Now McClendon is piloting the huge map project.
McClendon was a co-founder and angel investor in Keyhole, a geospatial data visualization company that was purchased by Google in 2004 to produce Google Earth. Keyhole itself was spun off from another company called Intrinsic Graphics, of which McClendon was also a founder. He was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2015.
"Accurate maps are at the heart of our service and backbone of our business," McClendon said in a media statement. "The ongoing need for maps tailored to the Uber experience is why we're doubling down on our investment in mapping."
Uber Now Mapping North America
Uber now has its mapping vehicles canvassing the U.S. and Mexico to record the surroundings and gather images for the new maps.
A half-billion dollars to do this project won't dent Uber's substantial "unicorn" bankroll all that much. The company has raised more than $13.5 billion from investors, including Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund ($3.5 billion alone), private equity group TPG and Baidu, China's version of Google.
Investors recently valued Uber at $62.5 billion, making it the most highly valued private company in Silicon Valley. In comparison, publicly traded Apple has a $571 billion market cap.