Rather than having to rely on -- and pay for -- Google Maps to help its drivers navigate city streets, Uber is deploying its own mapping cars across the U.S. as well as Mexico. The $500 million mapping effort, eventually expected to expand to other parts of the globe, will also support the ride-hailing company's self-driving car ambitions.
The company will be deploying its mapping cars in Mexico this summer, Brian McClendon, Uber's vice president of advanced technologies, revealed in a blog post last week. It began its mapping efforts in the U.S. in 2015.
Citing "a person familiar with Uber's plans," the Financial Times yesterday reported that the company is investing half a billion dollars into the mapping program to reduce its dependence on Google Maps for navigation smarts. Uber was once supported by startup funding from Google, but has become more of a rival over the years and has recently seen rising costs to use Google Maps.
'Doubling Down on Our Investment'
"Accurate maps are at the heart of our service and the backbone of our business," said McClendon, who in 2001 co-founded a company called Keyhole that was acquired by Google in 2004 and became the foundation for Google Earth. "The ongoing need for maps tailored to the Uber experience is why we're doubling down on our investment in mapping."
Until last year, McClendon was vice president of engineering for Google, where he worked on the company's Geo programs, including Maps, Earth, Streetview and EarthEngine. He was hired by Uber in June 2015.
"Over the past decade mapping innovation has disrupted industries and changed daily life in ways I couldn't have imagined when I started," McClendon noted. "That progress will only accelerate in the coming years especially with technologies like self-driving cars."
Seeking More 'Relevant' Map Details
A spokesperson for Uber today told us the company would not comment on the $500 million investment figure reported by the Financial Time. "We don't have any info to share beyond what's in the blog post at this time." she said.
In his blog post, McClendon said that while existing maps are useful to Uber, they include some information that isn't relevant and lack details about other factors that are important to help drivers get where they need to go. For example, navigation could be helped by better information about local traffic patterns and exact locations for passenger pick-ups and drop-offs. There are also parts of the world that still don't have detailed maps, he added.
Uber already uses a variety of mapping sources, including GPS and its own technologies. Last year, the company also acquired mapping-focused assets from Microsoft Bing for an undisclosed amount. Additionally, Uber announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, the "birthplace of self-driving or autonomous vehicle (AV) technology." Uber also donated $5.5 million to the school after hiring away around 50 engineers from the university's National Robotics Engineering Center.
"The street imagery captured by our mapping cars will help us improve core elements of the Uber experience, like ideal pick-up and drop-off points and the best routes for riders and drivers," McClendon said.