Uber logoWith Uber announcing plans earlier this week to study the field of self-driving cars, news articles speculate that Uber may eventually ditch all or some of its human drivers in favor of autonomous cars. Uber is known for connecting ride-seeking customers with drivers via smartphones, as Doug Gross writes for The Christian Science Monitor.

Mike Isaac writes for The New York Times blog Bits that Uber’s new institute, Uber Advanced Technologies Center, will be a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, known for being a leader in research on autonomous vehicles and robotics. The Center will also work with researchers from the National Robotics Engineering Center, Isaac writes.

Isaac goes on to say:

Uber is positioning the center as a long-term bet. Aside from its private car service, Uber has experimented with food delivery, cargo transportation and courier services, among other offerings. An autonomous car service could broaden Uber’s service, even if it is years away from becoming reality.

googleUber has been close to Google, writes Ron Amadeo for Ars Technica. In 2013, Google Ventures invested $258 million in Uber, in addition to being part of a later funding round, Gross reports. “With Uber’s biggest expense being the drivers and Google working on a self-driving car, it was often speculated that the two companies would partner up, or Google would just acquire Uber,” Amadeo writes. But with Uber’s announcement about its Center, what Amadeo calls the two companies’ chumminess with each other appears to be on the wane, he writes. Not only is Uber developing self-driving cars, but Google is working on a ride-sharing app, Amadeo writes.

Bloomberg’s Brad Stone reports that Chris Urmson, the Google executive in charge of Google’s driverless cars project, said last month at the Detroit auto show that Google is thinking a lot about a scenario in which people can summon a vehicle and it will pick you up and take you where you want to go. But if Google and Uber are now competitors, and with Uber’s ride sharing service being dependent on Google Maps, Stone writes, Uber could wind up lost. Although there are other mapping systems, such as Apple Maps and Yahoo Maps, they are inferior to Google’s, Zach Miners writes for IDG News Service in an article appearing on Computer World.

In an update, Ars Technica’s Amadeo writes that reports of a Google ride-sharing app have been exaggerated, as the app in question is an internal tool to help Google employees in their commutes, and is not related to its driverless car program. And, Amadeo reports, according to The Wall Street Journal, Uber is working on a mapping system of its own.

Uber has not said when it expects to have autonomous vehicles on the market, Miners writes. Google has said theirs could be ready within two-to-five years, he notes. Isaac writes: “If [Uber’s] driverless cars become a reality, it will be hard for [Uber] to reconcile that with its promise of calling itself one of the largest creators of new jobs in today’s global economy.”

In a related news item, Cody Lee writes for iDownloadBlog of several unmarked vans spotted driving around California with what appear to be 12 cameras mounted on their roofs and cylindrical antennae that could be LiDAR sensors (laser-based technology used in self-driving vehicles). At least one of those, Lee writes, is leased to Apple. These vans may be capturing street level photos for maps. Cody writes:

In November, a job listing was discovered hinting that the company [Apple] is in the process of bringing [its two-year-old Maps] app to the web, and it also launched a new Maps Connect portal, which allows businesses to manage their listings within Maps.

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