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Car Wars: Uber mapping vehicles take to the streets

Back in 2013, when Google’s venture capital arm poured $258 million into Uber, it seemed that the Silicon Valley partnership will prove to be formidable force in the technology world. But, ever since Uber announced plans to develop self-driving cars earlier this year, it has become increasingly clear that the ride-hailing company would not remain BFFs with Google for long.

It’s no secret that autonomous cars technology has been the Internet titan’s pet project for quite some time now. And as soon as Uber made public its plans to open a research and development center for driverless cars in Pittsburgh, a Bloomberg report screamed that Google was preparing to offer its own ride-hailing service.

With its relationship with Google on tenterhooks, Uber has become serious about developing its own mapping platform as well. It acquired San Jose, California based mapping startup deCarta in March. After that, Uber purchased around 100 of Bing Maps’ employees and some of its mapping assets as well. It was also in the bidding to acquire Nokia’s mapping service HERE, but lost out to a consortium of German carmakers. And now, BuzzFeed had learned that Uber has been hiring contractors to drive its mapping cars and capture 3D images of local streets, a la Google Street View. One of these cars has been spotted in Kentucky recently.

Currently, Uber uses a combination of Google Maps and its propriety routing algorithm to get its drivers around. But, talk to any Uber regular and they will tell you the most frustrating aspect of the ride-hailing service is the inaccurate ETA the riders receive during pings. Getting its own mapping tech will not only help Uber zero down on better routes and to make more accurate ETAs, it would also come in handy for the company’s self-driving car project because the software would be aware of tricky intersections or streets that are frequently congested.

Jeff Holden, chief product officer at Uber, has also admitted to this in an interview. “When you think about what Uber does in our current business, accurate, real-time mapping is very valuable to us. Limitations in current mapping technology make that a harder problem,” he said.

Uber already has the blessings of Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to test its self-driving cars in the Grand Canyon State. Uber has said in a statement, “We’ll work with some of the world’s leading experts in lens design at the University [of Arizona] to improve the imagery we capture and use to build out mapping and safety features.”

Well, with the race to developing autonomous cars technology intensifying, it seems like self-driving vehicles may arrive sooner than expected. We, for one, are not complaining!