Uber may not plan to reinvent the wheel, but the company will drop $500 million to re-map parts of the world. The company has been using Google Maps, but now that’s not good enough—especially if the maps need to be extremely precise for self-driving cars.
“Uber wouldn’t exist if comprehensive interactive digital maps hadn’t been created first,” said Brian McClendon, vice president of advanced technologies at Uber. McClendon, who was previously the head of Google Maps. “Existing maps are a good starting point, but some information isn’t that relevant to Uber, like ocean topography.”
The Uber app uses some Uber and some third-party mapping technologies, explained IDG’s John Ribeiro. The ride-hailing company acquired the deCarta mapping and location company in March 2015 and also acquired tech used by Microsoft’s Bing Maps. Yet it is also reliant on Google Maps. Google has increased fees to companies using Google Maps, so now Uber said it wants more precise and relevant data.
The company said it needs “to know a lot more about, like traffic patterns and precise pickup and dropoff locations.”
Basically, better maps boil down to better service. McClendon said he came to Uber because maps are fundamental to Uber’s business.
“Every algorithm and every effort that we put into the service and the product is dependent on maps. Both for the rider and for the driver,” he said.
The Financial Times, which first reported on Uber’s plan to spend $500 million on mapping technologies, pointed out that Google Maps might place a marker at a building’s side door instead of the front door. Google Maps and addresses can be even less accurate in developing countries. Uber said it needs “to be able to provide a seamless experience in parts of the world where there aren’t detailed maps—or street signs.”
Although Google was an early investor in Uber, Fortune pointed out that Google’s Waze partnered with Lyft earlier this year. Also, both Uber and Google have their own thing going on when it comes to self-driving cars. If both companies were to compete in the self-driving car market, and Uber continued to rely on Google Maps, then it would “amount to a significant vulnerability for Uber.”
Bloomberg suggested that Uber’s more detailed maps could help it grow its autonomous car network; already, it has been testing self-driving cars on Pittsburgh’s roads. McClendon told The Atlantic that if a company wants to be in the “self-driving game” then “you’re going to have to create your own maps for it.”
The Uber version of Google Street cars have been on the roads in the U.S. and are currently collecting imagery in Mexico. The company will be sending the cars to other countries “soon.” All that street imagery and data collected will help Uber pinpoint “ideal pick-up and drop-off points and the best routes for riders and drivers.”