Why Did Google Acquire Urban Engines? To Redefine The Transportation Business

The financial details as well as the purpose for Google's latest purchase are sketchy. But adding Urban Engines' traffic and public transit data is a clear bid to strengthen the search giant's ultimate aims.

The terms and plans surrounding Google’s acquisition of global mapping data platform Urban Engines remain something of a mystery. But the likely reasons behind the deal are fairly clear.

As Google Maps continues to make ride-hailing deals, expand its marketing with “promoted pins” like its Google-owned sibling, Waze, and introduce additional location discovery apps like the just-released mobile travel guide Google Trips,  the need for increasing amounts of data are crucial — even for a data behemoth.

And despite less than three years of operation, Urban Engines has accrued a lot of data. The Los Altos, CA-based company is premised on the idea of combining “big data and spatial analytics to improve urban mobility and help people, cities and companies make better decisions about transportation.”

“Earlier, we had worked on making the web faster, better and more personalized,” Urban Engines’ collective leadership said in a blog post heralding the deal. “We sensed an opportunity to apply those lessons to the world we live in, and make urban living better. With the rapid growth in sensors (GPS, beacons, etc.) on smartphones and cars and transit, we are now truly in the age of Internet of Moving Things.

“The potential to improve the lives of millions of commuters, by learning from commuting behavior patterns, reshaping congestion and creating new consumer services in each minute-mile is incredible. In fact, we have an opportunity to create an urban OS — an intelligent software overlay for our real world.” Urban Engines said.

Urban Engine data visual
Urban Engines’ view of a train system.

More Than Just Data

Under its goal to create software for the Internet of Moving Things, its value is more than just serving as an additional data source for Google Maps, which will now house the team.

On top of the place-based data Urban Engines brings to Google, the company also adds greater functionality involving map syncing and offline usage. The provider of those crucial aspects will be what separates the usage of one map versus the increasingly crowded field of competitors.

It also has augmented reality functions. While the AR ability might not have seemed so special before the Pokémon Go mania this summer sent the next wave of game developers seeking their own ways to mix location data and AR, this part of Urban Engines’ app makes it seem prescient and compelling — not to mention timely.

In a short period, thanks in large part to investors such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Urban Engines has struck partnerships with municipalities around the world to provide data visualization, analyzing “billions of trips” and powering the trips of “millions of commuters.” (It’s also worth noting that members of Urban Engines’ leadership team were previously with Google.)

Google’s plans, whether to provide physical businesses with discovery tools or providing advertisers with the intelligence to target mobile consumers during “micro-moments” of need, the need for location intelligence and visualization is insatiable.

The Transportation Business Redefined

Add it all up — along with Google’s race against Uber and others to bring driverless cars to the mainstream, Google wants to define the concept of transportation on a global basis. And it wants to do it on its terms.

“Nearly one-third of all mobile searches are related to location — and every month, people visit 1.5 billion destinations as a result of those searches on Google,” said Jerry Dischler, VP of product management and the head of ad products at Google, during the search giant’s developer conference in May. “These are moments for your brand to be there [on Google Maps] and be useful. For example, if I want a cup of coffee, I reach into my pocket, and I’m on my way to the nearest café. Or, if I’m running low on gas, the closest station is only a few taps away. We do this for every kind of micro-moment, from ‘What do I want to do’ to ‘What do I want to buy?’”

‘Google Maps Of The Future’

In an assessment of Urban Engines’ app, Urbanful’s John Benjamin dubbed it “the Google Maps of the future.”

“The app differs from Google Maps in certain significant ways. For one, you can drag and drop location and destination pins, allowing the app to instantaneously draw a smart path from place to place,” Benjamin wrote. “This feature works without exact addresses, so if you’re traveling across town to merely wander, you don’t need to have a destination in mind. (In our tests, the processing speed was astonishing; we were given a half dozen routes in less time than Google Maps produces one.)”

The ability to get from Point A to Point B (and all kinds of places in between) has never been more easier for consumers and businesses. As the map wars continue to heat up, being able to have the clearest, smartest, actionable, independent, and most visually arresting navigation online and offline will determine the winner.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

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