Google made a stunning revelation this morning: the existence of a secret self-driving car project. Even more amazing: it has been in testing for months, on actual roads across California, and things seem to be running smoothly. Fans of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Knight Rider are hyperventilating at the prospects. And while the technology is likely still a long way from being widely implemented (The New York Times piece on it suggests eight years), there is one big question: why?
Google’s answer seems to be a “betterment of society” one. “We’ve always been optimistic about technology’s ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today,” Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, who spearheaded the project (and also runs Stanford’s AI Labs, and co-invented Street View), writes today.
That’s great. But Google is still a public company in the business of making money for its shareholders. So one can’t help but wonder what, if any, money-making prospects there are here?
“The Google researchers said the company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments,” according to the NYT. Further, they quote Thrun as saying that this project is an example of Google’s “willingness to gamble on technology that may not pay off for years.”
We know Google has a history of idealism — co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, in particular — but this project cannot come cheap. And the fact is that Google remains basically a one-trick-pony when it comes to making money. They are so reliant on search advertising revenues, that if something suddenly happened to the market, they’d be totally screwed. Android may prove to be their second trick, but it’s not there yet.
But there may be more to these automated cars than just an awesomely cool concept. At our TechCrunch Disrupt event a couple weeks ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave a speech about “an augmented version of humanity.” He noted that the future is about getting computers to do the things we’re not good at. One of those things is driving cars, Schmidt slyly said at the time. “Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense,” he noted. “It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.”
If your car can drive itself, a lot of commuters would be freed up to do other things in the car — such as surf the web. One of Google’s stated goals for this project is to “free up people’s time”. That matched with Schmidt’s vision of mobile devices being with us all the time every day, likely will translate into more usage of Google.
That may sound silly and not worth all the R&D an undertaking as huge as this will require, but don’t underestimate Google. This is a company who cares deeply about shaving fractions of a second off of each search query so that you can do more of them in your waking hours. Imagine if you suddenly had an hour or more a day in your car to do whatever you wanted because you no longer had to focus on driving? Yeah. Cha-ching.