Earlier this week, Google announced that its popular Waze app, which offers crowd-sourced navigation and has 65 million active users, plans to explore a carpooling feature in the Bay Area sometime this fall.
At around the same time, David Drummond ― chief legal officer at Alphabet, the parent company of Google ― announced his resignation from Uber’s board of directors. Drummond’s departure ends a three-year stint with the company that began in 2013, when Google invested $360 million in Uber.
Both companies released statements attesting to their continued collaborative spirit. “I wish David and Alphabet the best, and look forward to continued cooperation and partnership,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said. Drummond said that Google Ventures “remains an enthusiastic investor and Google will continue to partner with Uber.”
Still, it’s hard not to read this week’s events as signs that Google is planning to get into the ride-hailing game in a big way.
Not mentioned in the official company statements: Uber had intentionally shut both Drummond and Google Ventures CEO David Krane out of board meetings for “a significant amount of time” prior, reports The Information.
Also not mentioned: Earlier this month, Uber announced that it had acquired Otto, a self-driving truck company that counts among its co-founders ― who else? ― Anthony Levandowski, one of the minds behind Google’s self-driving research, and Lior Ron, an alumnus of Google Maps.
With the announcement of the new Waze carpooling feature, charmingly called “WazeRider,” it seems things are coming to a head.
“Considering that Waze reportedly has more than 50 million users, Google is arguably more knowledgeable — and has more insight — towards driving habits than any other company on the planet,” Kelley Blue Book analyst Michael Harley told NBC, adding that this is likely just “the tip of this emerging iceberg [in the] rapidly evolving ride-sharing wave.”
From a financial perspective, if Google is indeed planning to storm the ride-hailing world, it’s doing so at an opportune time. Uber announced last week that it’s already lost over $1 billion this year in its unsuccessful battle for Chinese market share, and it needs to clean up its balance sheet ahead of a potential IPO. And rumors persist that Lyft is shopping itself around for a corporate buyer (Lyft denies these.)
Google’s pockets are sufficiently deep to make a grand entrance into this space if it wants. Perhaps even more importantly, it has the detailed mapping data necessary to actually put self-driving cars on the road ― an ultimate goal for Uber, Lyft and many other companies.
“Nominally, you can do autonomous driving without high-definition maps,” Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, told Popular Mechanics earlier this summer. “But if you get into challenging situations like rainy or snowy conditions, or can’t see the curbs or lane markings, it’s almost like putting a blind person behind the wheel.”