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No, Google and Uber aren't going to war over self-driving cars

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In 2007, an Eric Schmidt-led Google made a bizarre announcement: it said it would bid on a swath of extraordinarily valuable wireless spectrum, but only if the FCC committed to a set of rules that would require that any compatible device be able to connect to it without restriction. The move was particularly perplexing because it seemed like Google was undercutting the wireless operators it was trying to partner with in advance of its Android launch. Why would it throw billions at a bid to steal spectrum out from underneath the very companies it was trying to work with?

Early the following year, we had the answer: Google had a policy agenda. It didn’t win any spectrum — most of it went to Verizon — but by placing bids, it accomplished what it had set out to do, meeting the minimum bid necessary to trigger the Commission’s open device rules. It didn’t want spectrum; it never did. It wanted to make the market more favorable for launching Android devices.

Self-driving tech still needs all the help it can get

Fast forward to 2015, and self-driving cars are meeting many of the same headwinds that next-generation wireless networks were meeting in the mid-aughts. Necessary rules and standards don’t exist. There’s still research to do. Pillars of the private and public sectors are jockeying to lead the conversation, to plot the path to commercialization.

This week, Uber has announced a self-driving research initiative in partnership with Carnegie Mellon, while Google is rumored to be investigating ride-sharing using its own self-driving cars. At a glance, as many have speculated, it would appear the two are about to go to war — but cast in the light of Google’s wireless maneuvers nearly a decade ago, the story looks very different.

As in 2007, Google’s priorities for self-driving cars remain in research and policymaking. And it can’t be overstated just how much more work is necessary to make them a viable reality — particularly Google’s vision of an autonomous, steering wheel-free box on wheels. They can’t handle inclement weather, which is particularly troubling for us Northerners getting walloped with record-breaking blizzards in the past couple weeks. They struggle to make quick, human-like decisions at intersections without compromising safety. Urban environments are still far more troublesome than highways are — and through all of this, we still don’t know who’s responsible when a self-driving car crashes. US Department of Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx sounds hip to autonomous driving tech, but that’s step one in a long, arduous road to standardizing rules that would allow self-driving cars on the road nationwide.

So, does it help Uber to have Google — which, again, is an enormous investor in Uber — pushing hard on both the technological and regulatory aspects of autonomous driving? Unequivocally yes. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal report suggests that Google's ride-sharing efforts with self-driving cars are, at least at first, simply intended for internal use to ferry employees to work. For the rest of us, in even the most blue-sky view, fully autonomous self-driving cars won’t be picking us up from our homes on a broad scale until 2020. In the meantime, automakers, Uber, and regulators need all the help they can get figuring out how this stuff works.