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

Self-driving cars from Google - it's real, but is it a good idea?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

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