Waymo's self-driving cars will be available on Uber's app, starting in Phoenix

Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving unit, has agreed to a multi-year strategic partnership with Uber that will see some of Waymo's autonomous vehicle technology join Uber's platform.

The collaboration comes a few weeks after Waymo's chief product officer Saswat Panigrahi said the company aims to increase ridership tenfold by next summer. By partnering with an existing ride-hail and delivery platform, Waymo could expand its reach and secure new customers beyond those who have already downloaded the company's branded Waymo One app.

The deal with Uber also strengthens the long-term strategic partnership between Waymo Via, Waymo's autonomous trucking arm, and Uber Freight, Uber's logistics spinout.

“Uber has long been a leader in human-operated ride-sharing, and the pairing of our pioneering technology and all-electric fleet with their customer network provides Waymo with an opportunity to reach even more people," said Tekedra Mawakana, co-CEO of Waymo, in a statement.

The first phase of the partnership will start later this year in the Metro Phoenix area. Earlier this month, Waymo doubled its service area in the region to 180 square miles, including downtown, the airport, Arizona State Universities and other East Valley suburbs.

A "set number" of Waymo vehicles will be integrated into both the Uber and Uber Eats apps to facilitate ride-hail and delivery services, according to a Waymo blog post. However, it's not clear what portion of Waymo's overall fleet will be made available to Uber. Waymo currently operates "a couple hundred" self-driving cars in each of its Waymo One service areas, limited to Phoenix and San Francisco, with testing taking place in Austin and Los Angeles. Waymo has clarified that it will not exclusively allocate vehicles to Uber. Instead, when a Waymo vehicle is accessible for a qualifying ride, Uber users will have the option to request a car through the Uber app.

The collaboration with Uber gives Waymo's self-driving technology a second path to commercialization. As Katherine Barna, head of PR at Waymo, told TechCrunch, Waymo is "building a Driver, not a vehicle." That "driver-as-a-service" model is similarly how Waymo intends to commercialize autonomous trucks, and it means that the company can lease out its AV technology, rather than being the owner-operator of that technology.

Cruise, one of Waymo's biggest competitors, also operates its own app and service, in addition to creating, testing and deploying self-driving technology. The company hasn't yet announced any plans to partner with ride-hail services, but it wouldn't be surprising, given how expensive an endeavor building robotaxis is.

One company that's already been following a similar playbook since the get-go is Motional, the Hyundai-Aptiv joint venture. Motional's route to market is based entirely on forming partnerships with existing ride-hail platforms, like Lyft, Via and Uber. Last October, Motional and Uber announced a 10-year operating agreement that will place Motional's autonomous Hyundai IONIQ 5s on Uber's platform in cities across North America. The two companies launched their first city, Las Vegas, in December and plan to launch in Los Angeles next.

Uber, too, has seen the apparent wisdom in partnering with companies that are dedicated to developing autonomous vehicle technology, rather than building the tech itself. The company had previously started its own AV unit in 2015 called Uber ATG, but found it to be not only a loss-generating endeavor, but also a brand hazard after one of Uber's test AVs (with a human operator behind the wheel) hit and killed a pedestrian.

Uber's in-house AV pursuits were further complicated by a lawsuit from Waymo (more on that below), and the company ended up selling off its self-driving unit to Aurora in 2020.

Drama aside, integrating AVs into the platform has always been a goal of Uber's, so it makes sense the company is shopping around for good fits.

“Fully autonomous driving is quickly becoming part of everyday life, and we're excited to bring Waymo's incredible technology to the Uber platform," said Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of Uber, in a statement.

Waymo and Uber have not shared how much a ride in one of Waymo's AVs would cost. Barna only said that pricing "is determined based on various factors on the Uber platform." She also noted that Waymo's Jaguars will be made available across Uber tiers like Uber X, Uber Comfort, Uber Green and Uber Comfort Electric.

Uber and Waymo putting water under the bridge

Uber and Waymo's ongoing partnerships suggest that the two companies have come a long way since their high-profile trade secrets lawsuit a few years ago. In February 2017, Waymo filed suit against Uber, claiming that a former Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, stole more than 14,000 confidential files with Waymo's trade secrets related to lidar sensors. The lawsuit alleged that Levandowski then used those files to start his own self-driving company called Otto, which was later acquired by Uber.

Uber initially denied any wrongdoing, saying that its own lidar technology was different from Waymo's and was developed by Uber's ATG team. The case went to trial in 2018, and the two companies reached a settlement. Uber agreed to provide Waymo with 0.34% of its stock, which was about $244 million at the time, and to ensure that its self-driving technology wouldn't infringe on Waymo's intellectual property.

While Uber and Waymo both declared intentions to put the ugliness behind them and move on, Levandowski wasn't so lucky. The former Google engineer was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2020 on one count of stealing trade secrets -- former President Donald Trump ended up pardoning him, so he avoided prison time. He was also ordered to pay $179 million to Google. Upon declaring personal bankruptcy, Levandowski then filed suit against Uber, claiming that the ride-hail company had agreed to indemnify him against legal action when it bought Otto.

Last year, the engineer reached a settlement with Uber, wherein Uber agreed to pay "a substantial portion" of that $179 million to Google, as well as give Levandowski $2 million.