Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

Summary: Self-driving cars from Google - it's real, but is it a good idea?

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TOPICS: Google
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As ZDNet's Sam Diaz reported, when Google CEO Eric Schmidt told an audience at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference that "Your car should drive itself. It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers," many analysts suggested that he needed to be just a little less disruptive and a lot more focused on search. Even Sam suggested

Schmidt wasn’t implying that such technology is coming. It was more of a side thought in a speech that he delivered about the interactions that computers and humans can have to share day-to-day tasks and learn from each other.

Guess what? Not only is the technology coming, but it's already here and Google is already testing it extensively. Google announced today that its drivers had logged over 140,000 miles in the company's self-driving cars around the San Francisco Bay area. According to a blog posted today by Google Distinguished Engineer, Sebastian Thrun,

Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.

So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe.

I find it a bit interesting that Google announced this on a Saturday when both Web and Bay Area traffic would be lighter than during the week. After all, as Sam, who is almost as big a Google fan as I am, called the idea "creepy." How will average consumers, let alone the Google conspiracy theorists, feel about it?

And, at least from my perspective, the most important question is what Google gets from self-driving cars? Obviously, Internet-connected cars, Android-powered car interfaces, and ad-serving GPS devices would be a boon for Google, but clearly the company has invested a fair amount of money in cars whose computers do a lot more than send you to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts. Sebastian Thrun says that Google founders "Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology." I'm sure that's true, but Google's business is search and advertising. Where do self-driving cars come in? I don't think that it's to let consumers spend more time using their Android phones while their cars take them to work.

Actually, Thrun's post gives us a couple of clues:

  • All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.
  • This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.
  • By mapping features like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance.

A quick read of the post would suggest that pure altruism is behind all of this and I'm sure that elements of Google's "Don't be evil" mantra are in there somewhere. However, the self-driving car has some serious potential growth implications for the company that don't stray as far as one might think from its core business.

Next: Can you say Web 3.0? »

The basic research component related to artificial intelligence and the cars' abilities to learn from their surroundings and their drivers screams semantic web. The better that Google's servers know and understand what we do, when we do it, at what time, and with whom, the better they can deliver highly relevant ads and search results. The semantic web is all about the ability of computers to understand, anticipate, and personalize our online experience. It will take some serious computer science advances to get us there, primarily focused on data management and artificial intelligence.

Google is also obviously looking to better leverage its Maps products and the extraordinary amount of data it already maintains on everything from StreetView to our Maps/Navigation queries. Google also has more processing power in its data centers than just about any other entity in the world. While fast search and relevant text ads currently make Google its money, the really smart folks at Google (and formerly of DARPA that Google hired for this project) can find new ways to leverage all of that power that can make money for Google in new ways that go far beyond its current efforts in ad serving.

Finally, this is about Android. Android is already making its way into the auto industry and if the mobile OS can ultimately be a bridge between smart vehicles and Google's datacenters, Google gets a win again.

My car won't be driving itself next year courtesy of Google. However, Google is taking a bit of a long-term risk investing in a set of technologies that will most likely pay off big time. And the payoff will extend beyond your car into the way you search and interact with the Web.

Topic: Google

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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99 comments
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  • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

    What a genius plan! Take the drivers' eyes off the road so that they can watch the ads Google put all over the windshield and the windows with argumented reality. The car will automatically drive to the advertiser's place if the driver chooses to. However the car may also make up its own mind from time to time if the advertiser pays enough.
    Exception Handler
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      Any plans for a self-driving sex? It might also prevent many accidents...
      Soganbuy
      • Great idea.

        @Soganbuy
        It's not just while I'm driving I wish I could be napping instead.
        steve_jonesuk@...
      • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

        the problem of mechanical vehicle failure would still be an issue. If the vehicles fail to properly communicate with one another, this could cause dangerous conditions. What happens if there are mechanical/<a href="http://www.carparts.com/"><font color="black">carparts</font></a> problems with the lead car which is crucial to the functioning of the train? This could possibly then affect every car in the train.
        lackneramanda
  • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

    "Where do self-driving cars come in? I don?t think that it?s to let consumers spend more time using their Android phones while their cars take them to work."

    You don't? Why not? If you're getting driven to work, wouldn't that be an excellent time to catch up on email and do some browsing while you're at it?
    graemeerickson
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @graemeerickson
      Maybe Google should also invent a self <a href="http://www.donatecarusa.com/">car donation</a> program when the driver is caught drunk behind the wheel. That should fix a lot of problems.
      jamesTT
  • For one it would alllow Google to

    collect more precise information about the areas in which a person would like to go, allow for a more finely tuned advertising campaign.

    Or maybe their Google Street cars will drive around automated, saving Google from having to hire drivers.
    :|
    Tim Cook
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @Mister Spock or maybe if they can get a decent market share, Google street view can become an almost real-time service?

      Or, imagine every Taxi in new-york replaced with a self-driven car, packed with surveillance gear? The police could buy real time footage from google, add in some powerful image processing in the google PC farms and they could predictively warn about potential crimes based on suspicious behaviors and appearances.
      blakjak.au
  • when you have all the information...

    ...in the world, your first inclination as an engineer is not to earn profit ("oh i can advertise some more!!) but to do something high-tech about those information (oooooh let me see how i can automate all these mundane tasks!). these people are not business majors who are challenged by seeing their net profit rise. they are first and foremost computer engineers who loves to program and do cool stuffs. even their CEO is an engineer. if you are a painter and you somehow become a CEO of a company that sells paintings, you don't lose your creativity and focus only on your profits right? that's not the main thing. at the same time you now have stockholders and you now have to balance that creativity with satisfying your stockholders. it's not altruistic entirely coz you are satisfying your own hobby but it's also not altogether only about profits. info gathered from pc to smartphones to tv to cars. what's in it for google? LOTS OF INFORMATION and more cool coding to follow. they know they can always monetize later.
    jimmery
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @jimmery Learn to spell... and how to write... forget the shift key exists?
      lancemertz
    • Still bothers me...

      @jimmery Google is very aware: "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER".
      And power is a direct link to riches. It's all interconnected in a very basic way, no genius involved in seeing that. The genius is involved in the *action* and the *application*. Google may seem to be probing unconventional paths, but what *is* conventional about Google?
      Papa_Bill
  • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

    I'd certainly want to have this. I could just use a self-driving car to get me to Altha from Tallahassee, FL and back, which is great since I can't use a bicycle to travel between two cities. If I want to travel to a place within a city, I could just use a bike and go from there, since a bike is great as a healthy form of transportation than a car.
    Grayson Peddie
  • only one problem...

    There are quite a few jobs, particularly those of cabbies and lorry-drivers, who are dependent on the need for a human driver. If you go to New York City, you'll notice that roughly HALF of all traffic is composed of taxis. Think of how many jobs will be lost if the Taxi and Limo Commission decided replace the drivers with automated ones. There are also plenty of lorry drivers out there who could lose their jobs, too. There's no way that the labour unions would let that happen.
    I don't know if this will catch on.
    DaL33T
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @DaL33T

      We had that same problem when the automobile caught on...lots of horse shoe makers put out of work.

      gary
      gdstark13
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @
      gdstark13
      • You show fascinating insight, sir.

        @gdstark13 **CRASH**
        Papa_Bill
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @DaL33T I don't think many jobs would be lost. People need to 1. afford to buy a self-driving car (provided they have a place to park it). That said, they would still need cab drivers to quickly shuffle the folks around who commute to meeting after meeting where in New York you can spend a half hour looking for a parking spot IF there is one and you can afford to park in it lol.
      kathome
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @DaL33T These will most likely still need a human driver, just in case some emergency happens and they need to override the automated controls (ever see 5th Element?).
      koldflame
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @DaL33T Makes an excellent point. Any innovation (or change/abandonment) of how things are done has unintended negative side effects. And our accuracy in estimating the magnitude of anticipated negative side effects and positive ones for that matter is not so great either. Just think what happened when the auto replaced the horse...

      "If it can be done, it will be done." If there is perceived profit in it, correctly or not, there will be people falling all over themselves to provide it, so brace yourselves...
      rwhaller42
    • RE: Google's self-driving car: What's in it for Google?

      @DaL33T Would you rather shut down the internet to keep the libraries open?
      lumpynifkin