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July 31, 2016 3:46 pm

Uber to pour $500m into global mapping project

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A taxi passes by an advertisement for the Uber car and ride-sharing service displayed on a bus stop in Paris, France, in this March 11, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Files©Reuters

Uber is preparing to pour $500m into an ambitious global mapping project as it seeks to wean itself off dependence on Google Maps and pave the way for driverless cars.

The San Francisco-based transportation company has mapping vehicles crisscrossing the US and Mexico to record the surroundings and gather images for maps. Uber says it will start driving mapping vehicles in other countries soon.

Flush with cash after raising billions of dollars from investors, Uber is ramping up investments in new technologies such as mapping and driverless cars.

The company has decided to invest $500m in mapping, according to a person familiar with Uber’s plans, as it doubles down its efforts in this challenging space.

Uber’s initial growth was largely enabled by pre-existing hardware and software such as smartphones and cars, but as the company looks to secure its long-term growth it is spending more on original research.

The disruptive car-hailing company has expanded its business to more than 60 countries and provided passengers with more than 2bn rides, and at times has come under regulatory scrutiny including lawsuits and even criminal charges.

By developing its own maps Uber could eventually reduce its reliance on Google Maps, which currently power the Uber app in most of the world.

Although Google was an earlier investor in Uber, the two companies have avoided working closely together and are now developing rival technologies for driverless cars.

Last year Uber hired one of the world’s leading digital mapping experts, Brian McClendon, who previously ran Google Maps and helped create Google Earth.

“Accurate maps are at the heart of our service and backbone of our business,” Mr McClendon said in a statement. “The ongoing need for maps tailored to the Uber experience is why we’re doubling down on our investment in mapping.”

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One advantage of in-house mapping is greater precision, for example an exact location marker for the main door of a large office building rather than a side door.

This precision is particularly needed in developing countries where Google Maps and addresses tend to be less accurate. This is so problematic that in many non-western countries Uber drivers tend to call passengers to ask their location before a pick-up.

Ride-hailing companies automatically generate a vast set of data about traffic patterns and locations using information from drivers’ and riders’ phones, and Uber already incorporates some of its own mapping technologies into its app.

Google has started to increase the fees that it charges for the use of Google Maps, presenting concerns about whether it might raise prices further in future.

As Uber prepares to spend $500m on its mapping ambitions, the programme follows earlier investments in mapping that include the acquisition of an imagery collection team from Microsoft’s Bing last June. Last year Uber also acquired deCarta, a mapping company that developed the turn-by-turn directions behind GM’s OnStar software.

Uber has raised more than $13.5bn from investors including Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, private equity group TPG, and China’s Baidu, the search engine. The most recent investors valued Uber at $62.5bn, making it the most highly valued private company in Silicon Valley.

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