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Whoa, If True: Is Google Launching an Uber Rival?

February 3, 2015 12:42 AM
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Uber has spent the past year punching down at would-be rivals like Lyft and Gett. It hasn’t been a particularly fair fight. Uber is not only far larger than its challengers in the suddenly booming car-hailing business. It also fights dirtier, from its secretive campaign to poach drivers from Lyft to its alleged “denial-of-service” attack on Gett.

If true, this would be seismic news in the tech industry. Google taking on Uber in ride-hailing would be akin to the time it took on Apple in smartphones—or, far less successfully, the time it took on Facebook in social networking. Some were quick to point out that this wouldn’t be the first time Google suddenly turned on a company that had long considered it a partner.

But that alone doesn’t prove that Google is on the verge of launching an Uber rival. And neither, for that matter, does the Bloomberg report, as I read it.

Bloomberg’s Stone, the author of a definitive Jeff Bezos biography, is among the most respected of tech journalists. It’s quite possible he knows more than he was able to say here. But the facts in his piece, as I read it, add up to something less than ironclad evidence that Google is launching a major new business imminently. Maybe those screenshots reveal an internal ride-sharing initiative aimed largely at Google employees, rather than anything meant for consumers. Maybe it’s an experiment or pilot project that could turn into a consumer business, or could quietly fold within a few months. Or maybe Stone is right and Google is gearing up for war.

That’s what we call a non-denial denial. Google is downplaying the possibility of an Uber rivalry, but it isn’t rejecting it outright.

There’s no denying it would be interesting if it happened. But I’d read this less as an act of war than as a reallocation of forces to reflect the possibility of future conflict. Google is a powerful company, but it’s hard to imagine it beating Uber if the game involves hiring a sprawling global workforce of human drivers. That isn’t Google’s forte. Nor is Uber likely to quickly catch up to Google in the self-driving arena, even with Carnegie Mellon’s help.

Rather, both companies appear to be making early preparations for what both believe is the likely long-term future: a world of self-driving taxis that cut the human drivers out of the equation. That future could still involve a partnership between Google and Uber, but it’s understandable that they’d be hedging their bets at this point: Neither wants to be at the other’s mercy when it comes time to negotiate the terms.


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