Google has a lot of self-driving cars that have driven a lot of miles, but so far has not used them commercially. That could change if the Silicon Valley giant pursues its rumored plans of developing an autonomous ride-sharing network to compete with Uber and Lyft. Recently, Google filed a patent application that could be seen as the first shot across Uber’s bow.
The application, first noticed earlier this month by the website Patent Yogi, is for efficiently determining pick-up and destination locations for autonomous vehicles. Google says it wants to operate fully self-driving cars where passengers provide some initial input, such as a pick-up or destination location, and the vehicle maneuvers itself to that location.
But not all locations are accessible or safe for autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars may not be able to drive everywhere a human driven vehicle can, such as construction zones or lanes only for emergency vehicles.
Google aims to address that challenge in its patent application. When provided with a location, Google says a centralized dispatching system would provide a set of suggested locations for safe pick-ups, waiting, or drop-offs. These suggested locations may include those provided by the user and convenient nearby locations. As such, the patented technology increases the “availability, safety, and usefulness of the services of autonomous vehicles,” Google’s application reads.
Uber also directs passengers to more convenient pick-up locations, mostly through its carpooling feature and other transit-focused products.
This isn’t the first patent filed by Google in relation to its self-driving efforts. Last year, the tech company was granted a patent for a unique solution to minimize injuries when a self-driving car strikes a pedestrian. The patent describes "an adhesive layer positioned on the front end of the vehicle" that pedestrians will simply stick to "in the event of a collision” — in other words, human flypaper.
Google’s self-driving fleet, operated under its Waymo brand, is still in the testing phase. The company recently announced its plans to deploy its newly developed self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Mountain View and Phoenix at the end of January.
Rumor has it that Waymo and Chrysler will eventually launch its own autonomous ride-sharing service to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft, possibly by utilizing Google’s Waze traffic data and mapping service. Indeed, during his remarks at the Detroit auto show last week, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said the company was eyeing a number of products, including ride-hailing, logistics, personal transportation, and last-mile solutions.
Reportedly, Google plans to start small by deploying its multi-sized autonomous fleet in confined areas like college campuses, military bases, and corporate office parks. This is smart, because it would likely help Google get additional miles under its belt before rolling out its self-driving cars onto city streets. (I wrote all about the possibilities of a Google-vs-Uber ride-hailing smackdown over a year ago.)
Uber, of course, has its own, smaller fleet of self-driving cars that its been using to pick up and drop off select groups of passengers in Pittsburgh. The company tried to roll out a second test fleet in San Francisco, but was forced to cancel the service after it refused to apply for an autonomous driving permit from the state. Those vehicles were moved to Arizona, where they will soon offer rides to passengers. Lyft is also working on a self-driving ride-hailing service in partnership with investor General Motors.
Google and Uber may eventually be in direct competition in the ride-hailing market, but for now, the two Silicon Valley giants are finding new ways to collaborate. Last week, Google announced that the latest version of Google Maps on Android and iOS lets users request a ride from Uber without ever leaving the app. Previously, you could use Maps to check for price estimates and start the process of getting a lift, but eventually you had to finish things up in the Uber app. Now, the entire request process takes place directly in Google Maps.