The Road Ahead: Google Shows How Driverless Cars Are On Their Way

I had the pleasure of being in the Midwest over the weekend while it got hit by a historic blizzard, dumping over 17 inches of snow on Chicago and the region. What’s more, I got to drive a hundred-some miles through the teeth of the storm. This was a white-knuckle affair where the road vanished in the spray of a truck and took about three times as long as it should. As I was driving, I kept thinking to myself that this seemed pointless. It was absurd that I was even going 30 mph at these speeds, relying on myself and everyone else to be good drivers under terrible conditions when, in reality, no one should have been on the road.

That visceral experience stands in stark relief to the ease of our mobile technology world. And, while I don’t think that mobile tech can, nor should, replace everything, the act of driving seems to be a no-brainer. I enjoy driving in good conditions, but the blizzard trip was a stark reminder that we regularly hurtle down roads in heavy weapons at speeds that would have been regarded as madness a century ago. Google, the Mountain View giant who uses data to understand the world, agrees and is working on the future of the roadway, taking lessons from mobile tech that Silicon Valley helped make a reality.

Driverless car
A driverless car prototype from Google. 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A 30-year plan for the roads

The Secretary of Transportation has to be one of the least glamorous Cabinet jobs there are. They rarely get dramatic shows on CBS about their work, tasked as they are with the mundane business of overseeing roads, coming up with safety regulations and hiring crossing guards. (That last might not take place under their purview, actually). Compared to the Secretary of State or Defense, it seems pretty boring.

And Google doesn’t do boring. Rather they took the idea of finding something on the internet and made it exciting. Google evolved looking at a map into a globe-spanning interactive quest to find the coolest things. Google knows that the most life-changing things happen in the most mundane of spaces. Roads and how we drive falls firmly into that category.

So Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx visited Googleplex this week to make a joint statement about the future of roads and driving. A lot of it was regular stuff about rebuilding crumbling road systems. But the idea of making the announcement in Google’s backyard also showed that the government thinks there is a lot it can do with private companies to make driving safer and more accessible. This is especially urgent for people who are normally frustrated by transportation needs – think the elderly, blind, handicapped, etc. Frankly, most of the report is pretty terrifying about our transportation woes.

But what was interesting was the piece on driverless cars, which Google has long been on the forefront of pushing.  It seems the DoT is now on board as well and is invested, if not financially, then on the regulatory side, which is the most important thing it can do. It’s going to be a major bureaucratic hassle to get people to accept driverless cars, even if they are ultimately safer. But by Foxx presenting his report at Google, it showed that the weight of the government is behind this project.

What driverless cars learned from mobile tech

Driverless cars, you could say, are the ultimate in mobile technology (literally). They are computers connected to our lives through the vast web that is the Internet of Things that function with semi-autonomy in order to make our lives easier. Here’s what self-driving cars can learn from the successes and failures we’ve seen in Silicon Valley.

 

  • Reliability trumps coolness. This seems like a no-brainer, but every year we hear of companies who spend so much time making what seems cool that they forget to make it work. If self-driving cars get paralyzed when confronted with something unusual, the reluctance to adopt them may be impossible to overcome. Initial impressions are important. Functionality is way more important than style.
  • Don’t condescend to the unconverted. When driverless cars become a reality, I’ll be first in line, and will be livid that there will be people who risk the lives of my family because they want to text and drive. But Google can’t have that attitude – it will only provoke a reactionary backlash. They just have to demonstrate the importance of the tech. After all, everyone who laughed at the notion of needing a cell phone now has one.
  • Incorporate existing technology. Driverless cars will have to merge a tech we’re already embracing like our smartphones. They should come equipped with apps that turn our car into a traveling office, theater, or library. Oh yeah, and it better be able to find parking.

It is looking like these cars will be on the road by 2020, especially now that Uber is getting involved. It will probably be decades after that, though, that they become dominant and make people forget that we once drove ourselves. It’s interesting that San Francisco was once the end of the country, the closing point of the last frontier. Now the new one is coming roaring out from under its bridges. The challenges ahead to make transportation safe and clean are formidable, but if any area is up to it, it’s the Bay Area.

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