Self-driving cars moved closer to reality this week, with splashy announcements from Uber, which plans robot taxis in Pittsburgh within weeks , and Ford, which will have its own version in five years .
But looming in the background is Alphabet, whose Google subsidiary was the original Silicon Valley self-driving car promoter and built one of the longest-running and best-developed programs. The Mountain View company has logged more than 1.6 million test miles, but unlike its rivals, has shown few signs of commercializing its technology.
Alphabet may be waiting for other companies to reach the market first and make the costly mistakes, analysts say. The company seems focused on perfecting the technology before releasing it: It anticipates a future in which self-driving cars will not even have steering wheels , thus eliminating the risks associated the intermixing of man and machine.
"Just because you get there first, doesn't necessarily mean you walk away with all the spoils," said Douglas Schmidt, a computer science professor at Vanderbilt University.
Yet the company has recently lost some top executives and engineers, a sign of intensified competition in the race to build self-driving cars. The project's chief technology officer, Chris Urmson, departed this month. Urmson said in a Medium post that he was ready for a fresh challenge.
Google has been a latecomer to the market for other products, but still emerged ahead. Search engines like Yahoo existed before Google search , but Google was able to outmaneuver them. Google was also not the first company to create a smartphone operating system, but it now dominates the worldwide market with its Android platform, which works on phones that are cheaper than Apple's. The company has also seen the fallout that can happen when it launches a product too early, as was the case with Google Glass .
Google did not respond to a request for comment on its plans for the self-driving car project.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick considers Google a competitor, and it is essential that his company come out on top in self-driving cars.
"If we are not tied for first, then the person who is in first, or the enemy that's in first, then rolls out a ride-sharing network that is far cheaper or far higher-quality than Uber's, then Uber is no longer a thing," Kalanick told Business Insider recently.
In contrast to Uber, transportation efforts at Alphabet represent a tiny percentage of its overall business. The self-driving car project is grouped with other far-off bets, which together represent less than 1 percent of Alphabet's $21.5 billion in second quarter revenue, or $185 million. The bulk of Alphabet's revenue comes from advertising, and investors are "patient" as they wait to see how the autonomous-car project materializes, said Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray.
"Because the core (business) is so good and so strong, people are fine with letting these other bets be out there," Munster said.
Munster said Alphabet could eventually make money from its self-driving car project by working with third-party transportation firms, like ride-hailing companies, and taking a cut of the money charged to consumers. Or it could show advertising during the consumer's ride in the autonomous car. A consumer might be riding in the car and see a promoted pin on a Google Map that would give the consumer a discount if they stopped at a certain coffee shop along the way.
Google's ability to map out large swaths of the world give it an advantage in testing autonomous technology.
"Accurate maps are the foundation of what you start with, and everything else is built on top of that," said Charles King, president of information technology analysis firm Pund-IT.
But Google faces a basic disadvantage in the self-driving race: The company hasn't traditionally built cars.
Most of its competitors have. Ford, for example, has more than a century of manufacturing experience. The company plans to tap experts from throughout its sprawling operations — software engineers and chassis designers alike — to develop and mass produce its autonomous cars, which also will not have steering wheels or brakes.
Taking a new car all the way from initial design to actual production usually requires years of planning, said auto industry analyst Jessica Caldwell.
"Placing cars in production is a really hard discipline, and this is not the core strength of Google," said Caldwell, a senior analyst with the Edmunds.com auto information service.
She also pointed to the difficulties Tesla Motors, founded in 2003, has encountered while ramping up production of its electric vehicles, which the Palo Alto company designed from scratch.
"Even Tesla has had a lot of issues in production," she said. "They designed a cool-looking car with great technology, but production has definitely been a problem for them."
Analysts have assumed Google would partner with another company to build its autonomous cars. But it has never revealed precise plans for bringing the vehicles to market. Rob Enderle, of the advisory services firm Enderle Group, said some automakers were reluctant to work with Google because of concern that Google would build its own car.
"The carmakers never really liked working with Google," Enderle said. "They don't trust the company."
In a first step toward aligning with traditional automakers, Google signed a deal in May with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to build 100 autonomous minivans.
For all carmakers, the technology still has a long way to go, according to Steven Shladover, a program manager with California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology.
"How to make software at such a high level of dependability to actually drive a vehicle safely — no one knows how to do that yet," he said.
And once such vehicles are safe enough to drive on their own, there's the whole other issue of how self-driving cars will be regulated and how insurance will be handled . Shladover is quick to point out that Uber's self-driving taxis will still be monitored by human drivers, something that Google is already doing.
Uber's announcement is "a cute publicity stunt, (but) in terms of advancing the technology, I don't think it makes any difference," Shladover said.
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