Frictionless on-demand transport provider Uber is in talks with Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous driving unit, to make the latter’s technology available via its ride-share app, according to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
“We’re having discussions with Waymo. If something happens, great. If not, we can live with that,” he said, while appearing onstage at the Code Conference at Rancho Palos Verdes in California.
He shared his belief that Waymo is an “incredible technology provider” and welcomed the possibility of adding its technology to Uber’s network. However, he said that any company that wants to lead the autonomous driving sector will need to partner with Uber because of its vast installed base on smartphones.
Uber is thought to have over 75 million users in 600 cities and 78 countries – many of them using Android phones.
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Evidence of realpolitik and a more collaborative approach from Uber will come as a relief to its naysayers worldwide, who have long found the company’s combative, market-grabbing culture a disincentive to do business with the ride-share giant.
Khosrowshahi acknowledged that Uber’s relationship with Waymo has been “getting better” since Uber agreed to pay Waymo $245 million in shares in February to settle a year-long legal dispute over trade secrets.
In early 2017, Waymo filed a lawsuit saying that a former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, took thousands of confidential documents with him when he left the company. He subsequently ran Uber’s own self-driving division, but was sacked when Waymo sued.
The case led to Uber falling behind on plans to develop its own autonomous vehicles, and was a major factor in investors ousting the company’s then chief executive Travis Kalanick last June.
The settlement this year came just days after Kalanick himself took the stand in court, accused of organising a plan to steal more than 14,000 files from Waymo, before it was spun out from Google. The jury was shown internal emails in which Kalanick demanded “pounds of flesh” from Google. However, he claimed that “no trade secrets ever came to Uber”.
Since then, Uber has brought the subtler and more diplomatic, relationship-building skills of Khosrowshahi onboard – which was no doubt a factor in the thawing of relationships between the two companies. He has also won fans among investors, such as Warren Buffett.
Under Khosrowshahi, Uber has shifted its emphasis towards being a portal for all forms of frictionless transport, from ride-sharing and driverless vehicles, to electric bike hire, public transport ticketing, and flying taxis, and has consolidated its position in some parts of Asia – where Uber is less popular than local rivals – by pulling out in return for a financial stake in those services.
Yesterday, Khosrowshahi signalled that the company is “on track” for IPO in the second half of 2019.
However, Uber has also had to deal with the fallout of the fatal accident in March, in which a woman died after being struck by an autonomous Uber Volvo in Tempe, Arizona. Preliminary reports suggest that Uber’s technology was largely to blame for the accident.
But what about Waymo?
The Alphabet division has been hailed as the king in waiting in driverless technologies by investment bank UBS, which recently predicted that Waymo will own 60 percent of the market by 2030 – in an analysis that largely ignored the enormous presence (and cultural advantages) that China will have in the space.
For its part, Waymo plans to roll out an app-based service this year, which would enable passengers to order a self-driving Waymo car with no driver. The company already has partnerships in place with Uber rival Lyft, Jaguar Land Rover, and Fiat Chrysler, while an agreement with Honda is in the offing too, potentially to develop a mid-sized autonomous transport vehicle.
Additional reporting: Chris Middleton, Rene Millman.