The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

The Self Driving Car

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on December 2, 2013

The New Yorker published a great article this week on Google’s Self-Driving Car program, and the people behind it. It’s fascinating to think that automakers have been pursuing the notion of a fully autonomous vehicle since the 1950’s, but the company that’s closest to realizing that vision isn’t an automaker at all, but a technology firm that derives most of their revenue from selling online ads.

Perhaps my favorite quote of the article came from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who, in typical fashion, looks at this Self-Driving car not as an improvement over existing cars, but as a fundamental reshaping of the transportation system.

“As you look outside, and walk through parking lots and past multilane roads, the transportation infrastructure dominates,” Brin said. “It’s a huge tax on the land.” Most cars are used only for an hour or two a day, he said. The rest of the time, they’re parked on the street or in driveways and garages. But if cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls. They’d be cheaper and more efficient than taxis—by some calculations, they’d use half the fuel and a fifth the road space of ordinary cars—and far more flexible than buses or subways. Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland. “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model,” Brin said. “We are just on such a different planet.”

This is a great example of what Elon Musk calls “reasoning from first principles”, or reducing a problem to it’s most basic components and building a solution up from there, rather than iterating on an existing solution. It’s interesting that the traditional automakers are focused on iterating, believing that consumers won’t be able to adapt to anything more advanced. And yet, the Google X team isn’t thinking about the consumers of 2015, they’re re-thinking the entire transportation model 20 or 30 years out. Google’s vision for the future of transportation may never fully come to pass, but I wouldn’t bet against them. I can’t help but wonder if today’s automakers are falling into the tunnel vision that have led so many others to miscalculate the future of their industries.


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