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‘Doubling Down’ Its Investment, Uber’s Mapping Future Takes A Page From Google Maps’ Past

Saying existing maps aren't relevant enough to Uber's specific needs, the company is reportedly prepared to spend $500 million to make its own global mark on location technology.

Considering that Uber has brought on several key Google Maps executives to help it develop its own in-house navigation technology system, it’s not surprising that the ride-hailing giant is following a similar path to establishing clearer routes for the app’s drivers and passengers.

In a company blog post, Brian McClendon Uber’s VP of Advanced Technologies, says that, “The ongoing need for maps tailored to the Uber experience is why we’re doubling down on our investment in mapping.”

For example, last year the company took a page out of Google’s Street View cars, which,in 2007, began traversing every roadway across seven continents with a 360 degree camera mounted on it. Last year, Uber cars began recording locations in the U.S. and their effort has since then expanded to Mexico.

Plotting Location Independence

According to the FT’s Leslie Hook, which did not cite a specific source, Uber plans to spend $500 million to operate the mapping project all over the world. Uber declined comment on the FT’s reported figure.

Uber has long chafed at relying on Google Maps for its information. It’s been a stated goal for the past year-and-a-half to become more “location self-reliant” by reducing its licensing of mapping systems from other companies.

Besides McClendon (who served as a VP of engineering at Google from 2004 to 2015) noteworthy hires from Google Maps, who, , include Manik Gupta, who spent seven years at Google Maps, and Daniel Graf, who was at Google Maps from 2011 to 2014 and was briefly at Twitter before joining Uber last fall.

McClendon has been in his role since June 2015, which was around the same time the company acquired digital navigation pioneer deCarta.

In addition to developing its own mapping system, Uber has also struck deals with Dutch navigation software company Tom Tom to use parts of their navigation technology after failing to acquire former Nokia location platform Here, which ultimately fetched $3 billion from a trio of German carmakers (Audi, BMW, Daimler).

In the past few weeks, Uber has begun working with Factual on buttressing its knowledge of businesses’ location information (such as its current phone numbers, as well as ensuring lat/long accuracy), and Foursquare, which is providing additional data about specific places and “points of interest.”

That said Uber is being selective about its global ambitions. Evidence of that can be found in an unconfirmed Bloomberg report this weekend. Citing sources who are “familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer reported that Uber will merge its China business with that country’s leading ride-hailing platform, Didi Chuxing.

Noting that Uber declined to comment on the story and that Didi was not able available to weigh in, the combined entity is estimated to be worth $35 billion. The deal connects Uber with China’s search giant Baidu, which may have a 20 percent stake in the Uber/Didi company.

So while Uber is essentially walking away from running its own show in China, its ties give it a toehold in Asia — and that’s more than its rivals can say. Plus, Didi is making a $1 billion investment in Uber and that will also help it concentrate its competitive position just about everywhere else.

Not Just About Google

As McClendon notes, Uber’s moves aren’t just about checking Google’s dominance over location information. It reflects Uber’s comparatively narrow geospatial needs, which center around connecting its app users and drivers at the right place.

“Existing maps are a good starting point, but some information isn’t that relevant to Uber, like ocean topography,” McClendon says. “There are other things we need to know a lot more about, like traffic patterns and precise pickup and dropoff locations. Moreover, we need to be able to provide a seamless experience in parts of the world where there aren’t detailed maps — or street signs.”

“The ongoing need for maps tailored to the Uber experience is why we’re doubling down on our investment in mapping,” he adds. “Last year we put mapping cars on the road in the United States. This summer they hit the road in Mexico. Our efforts are similar to what other companies including Apple and TomTom are already doing around the world.”

Location Information Revolution

Much of Uber’s efforts are focused on its plans powering self-driving cars. For example, this summer’s strategic investment from Toyota will require that there’s no middleman providing the basis of its navigation system. It goes without saying that providing navigation tools for driverless cars is another area that Google is pursuing too, in advance of Tesla’s current high-profile and occasionally controversial pioneering of such vehicles. Apart from safety, driverless car programming will require a clear understanding of the intricate, nuanced information involved in determining where a user wants to be picked up and where they want to go.

The bottom line is that “location information” is hard to manage as new buildings spring up, new addresses are created, businesses close and open daily, and roads and traffic are experience changing conditions by the minute.

On top of that, Uber’s partnerships with other entities, such as Hilton, Starwood, American Express, and others, along with its expansion into on-demand delivery, will depend upon location insights that can ultimately “anticipate” users’ needs based on where they are.

A likely example: a Starwood guest who needs to catch a plane or make dinner plans may ultimately get a push notification asking them if they need an Uber to get them to their reservation on time.

That ability is built on data — the kind of data that digitally-connected, on-the-go consumers users share from their smartphones’ location services setting. Controlling that pipeline of location data will ensure that companies like Uber  own the consumer insights associated with the place-based patterns they make. At a premium, that means Uber be able to secure the best terms with other brands that are increasingly dependent consumers’ online-to-offline journeys.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.