At first blush: no surprise whatsoever. Earlier this month, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said the company’s first fleet of self-driving cars would begin running in Pittsburgh soon (as soon as this month, even!). The fleet consists of about a hundred modified Volvo XC90s, co-piloted by one engineer who can take the wheel when necessary. In other words: a straightforward competitor for Alphabet’s self-driving car.
For the past year-plus, both Alphabet and Uber have been working on their own variations of self-driving cars. Alphabet’s efforts have been considerably more public, but throughout both development processes Drummond has remained on Uber’s board. Now it seems that the reality that the two companies are increasingly becoming direct competitors is setting in, and a change of plans is in order.
The Information earlier today reported that, Drummond was left out of meetings at Uber. That’s not surprising — Alphabet’s efforts to build a self-driving car could be kneecapped by Uber’s rollout of its own self-driving car fleet. In an Uber-centric future, car usage is largely an on-demand model, and a constantly cruising fleet of self-driving cars powered by Uber’s technology removes a big potential opportunity for Alphabet.
Alphabet for years has been working on this kind of technology, though it’s been focused on a much more radical, steering wheel-less cruiser. With Google specializing in software and machine learning, it seemed like the company was well on its way to becoming a standard for self-driving vehicles, but increasingly Alphabet is finding itself dealing with competition.
In this sense, Uber is evolving beyond the simple ride-sharing application that GV poured $258 million into in 2013 (a mind-boggling share of the firm’s fund at the time). As it grows into its $60 billion-plus valuation, Uber’s sights have to be set higher over time — especially as a future where cars are no longer controlled by humans starts to become increasingly real. Uber has for some time been experimenting with additional business lines, like with its UberEATS courier service, and it seems only natural that the company would want to find ways to bring in new lines of revenue and make its existing businesses much more efficient.
While there have been plenty of setbacks, Tesla has aggressively pushed for this kind of a future in its vehicles, and it seems increasingly on its way to becoming the norm. This kind of experience also isn’t even new for Alphabet. In 2009, Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt stepped down from Apple’s board as the two companies began ruthlessly fighting out over whether Google (at the time) stole ideas from the iPhone and began to increasingly eat away at the early smartphone-maker’s lead.
It seems that GV’s David Krane (who took the reigns of the firm from Bill Maris earlier this month) is still a board observer, though The Information also reports that Krane is getting the cold shoulder. Again, while GV is an independent investment arm, it’s obviously linked to Alphabet proper and it would be strategically unsound to keep that information flowing freely if the two end up direct competitors.
Uber confirmed the departure to us in a statement from Drummond:
“I recently stepped down from Uber’s board given the overlap between the two companies. Uber is a phenomenal company and it’s been a privilege working with the team over the last two plus years. GV remains an enthusiastic investor and Google will continue to partner with Uber. I want to wish Travis all the best for the future.”
And here’s one from CEO Travis Kalanick:
“It’s been a pleasure having David on the board. He’s been a sage advisor and a great personal friend. I wish David and Alphabet the best, and look forward to continued cooperation and partnership.”