You need more than car parts and a fancy computer to build a driverless car. A vehicle that drives itself also needs to know exactly where it is in real time. Self-driving cars need maps. Really, really good ones.
“With autonomous vehicles, maps are going to be fundamental,” said Brian McClendon, a vice president at Uber and an expert in geospatial data visualization. “And the maps that are needed for autonomous vehicles are beyond anything that’s being created today by any third party.”
To Uber, the ultimate “third party” may be Google, where McClendon worked on maps for a decade, and which Uber still relies on for the inner workings of much of its service. The Uber interface is built on the Google Maps API, and Uber drivers have the option to jump out of the Uber app to navigate directly within Google maps as they’re driving. (In China, Uber partners with the search giant Baidu instead of Google.)
But with Uber increasingly investing in research related to self-driving vehicles, an area where Google is arguably the global leader, there’s pressure for the ride-hailing giant to move away from its dependence on Google. On one hand, this is a logistics issue. “Uber itself has a different set of needs than Google did [when it created its own maps],” McClendon said. “Some things we need, Google doesn’t have. We need to figure out how to improve, and build a service based on those improvements.” On the other hand, it’s about staying out in front among a fiercely competitive group of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies in the race toward driverlessness.