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Google is getting into the ride-share business — but it isn't a threat to Uber just yet

Johana Bhuiyan
Google enters ride-sharing space

The Wall Street Journal headline sounds ominous: "Google Takes on Uber With New Ride-Share Service." But the reality is less dramatic. Google — one of Uber's early investors — isn't actually launching a full-fledged Uber rival. Not today, at least.

What is happening: Waze, the crowdsourced mapping and navigation app that Google acquired in 2013, is expanding its ride-sharing pilot in San Francisco, according to the WSJ report. The service lets drivers pick up passengers who are traveling in the same direction, or are headed to a similar destination, in exchange for payment.

When Waze launched its U.S. pilot in May, it was only available to 25,000 employees of select companies. Now, all Waze users in San Francisco will have access to the service, which Waze has offered in its home market Israel since July 2015.

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So, does this mean Google is taking on Uber with this expanded pilot? Not really.

The Waze app on a mobile phone.
Nir Elias | Reuters

Waze's program is less about making a commercial driver out of every casual driver and more about helping drivers offset the costs of car ownership or gas. It's why it made the most sense for the company to start the pilot with specific companies — so that employees who worked together could carpool.

More simply: In the Waze program, drivers are being paid for gas and their time. Many Uber and Lyft drivers, on the other hand, depend on their wages to make a living.

While there may be some overlap, the user base is largely different. That goes for riders as well. Waze's service is designed to be cheaper, but there's not always going to be someone who is either going your way or is willing to take the time to pick you up and drop you off. It's not the always-there, on-demand service Uber is spending billions to perfect.

In a way, this Waze service actually sounds more like a car-sharing concept that Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently laid out in the second part of his "Master Plan." Tesla's car-sharing network is designed to help people offset the cost of owning future self-driving cars by sharing them into a pool of Teslas — not to build a massive car-service business and logistics network.

That said, Uber and Lyft have launched similar features. Uber is testing what it calls UberCommute in Chengdu, China, and Lyft launched Lyft Carpool in March.

But the model hasn't exactly panned out as planned — at least for Lyft.

Lyft shuttered its service earlier this month after the company decided it did not garner enough interest from drivers. Ride, another service backed by a former Uber executive Oscar Salazar, had a similar premise, but recently announced that the company was shifting its focus to family carpooling.

So Waze, as it exists today, isn't really a threat to Uber. There is, of course, the chance that Google is setting the groundwork for its own network of self-driving cars. But for now, unless Google wants to get into full-service ride-hailing — versus just ride-sharing — it won't be much of a threat to what Uber offers.

A representative for Waze did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.

By Johana Bhuiyan,

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