Tuesday, August 26, 2014

(The Big Disrupt) Driverless Cars: Google, The Driverless Car and Car Ownership

 “Cars are not just boxes to take us from A to B, they are – for the time being – so much more than that. Driverless cars will rob us of the great rite-of-passage that is learning to drive. Who wants to live in a society where fathers and their sullen teenage offspring can’t find some brief moment of connection, grinding a Punto round in circles in an industrial estate car park?”[1]
In lieu of search giant Google testing their driverless car prototype, much has been said about the advent of the driverless car from its benefits to its wide ranging implications for the automotive industry but what interesting thing about the driverless car is, as Forbes Tim Worstall pointed out “is not the technology itself: it’s the industries that that new technology is going to push into obsolescence”[2].

The advent of the driverless car would not only make a number of industries obsolete but also will serve as an affront to the key ideal that underpins the purchase and maintenance of cars, independence which is, and will continue to be the biggest barrier to widespread adoption.

Independence is at the heart of why despite statistics on global scale showing that human beings are horrible drivers that injure, maim and kill each other in the millions every year, It will be hard for Google to persuade people to at once surrender their independence then put their faith and lives in the hands of a handful of sensors and robustly written code.

Despite this glaring roadblock, Google and growing number of companies looking to get ahead of the driverless trend are still underestimating the powerful drives of independence and nostalgia when people buy and drive cars. Ask someone what their first car was and a sentimental smile crawls across their face as a flood of memories flood their consciousness. People still like the smell of a new car they bought with their own money, revving the engine and driving around playing the latest tunes till heart’s content. With the driverless car, all these experiences disappear and moving around town will become pretty much like the truly alienating experience of tube or metro travel only that much worse.

The driverless car may end prove to be a safer ride from point A to B but will be a better one? You can argue that the large number of injuries and deaths with humans at the wheel makes the driverless car a moral imperative but arguments like these are used to support the use of drones in the field of battle. Human beings maybe horrible drivers but if driving was about aptitude rather than independence roads across the world would be eerily empty.
For all the passionate and powerful arguments made in favour of the driverless car by its proponents, the day they and google dread is the day when someone dies in one of them. Should this happen, Google will open themselves up to a litany of expensive lawsuits that will send its legal costs through the roof.  The already low level of trust in the technology will shrink into non-existence and the powerful interests that would like driverless cars to disappear might just get their wish.

However, for all the bluster about the driverless car, the UK public certainly aren’t waiting with baited breath to be relegated from captains of the open road to alienated passengers as according to a survey conducted by Ipsos-Mori, “only 18% of the British public think that it is important for car manufacturers to focus on driverless technologies. 41% say it is unimportant”[3].

However the most interesting findings of the survey wasn’t about who was against the driverless car but who was for it as the biggest constituencies in favour of the driverless cars was either people who don’t own cars, wish to own one in the three years, or people “who are not driving enthusiasts” while those who were “were less likely to embrace it”[4].

The survey also revealed a desire among motorists for car manufacturers to focus on developing new and existing technologies that helps make driving safer as 84% of the respondents wanted see more developments in “forward-collision avoidance systems”, “lane departure warning systems” and “car to car communications”[5].

Across the pond, US motorists don’t seem so keen on the advent of the driverless car either as an overwhelming majority of Americans shudder at the thought of surrendering control of the wheel as an incredible “9 out of 10 American adults fear these advances, citing hardware and software failures, as well as security issues stemming from mischievous malware and hackers hell bent on causing chaos as primary concerns”[6].

The real security fear among the American public surrounding the driverless car shows up strongly in a poll by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers as “About 75% of respondents said they were concerned that companies would use the software that controls a self-driving car to collect personal data, and 70% were worried that data would be shared with the government”[7]

With the current revelations of the US government collecting wholesale information on US citizens and the collusion of tech companies, including Google, in helping them do it, the American public security fears regarding their privacy is completely understandable. Google’s entire business model is based on exploiting search data gleaned from their search engine and their services for profit so Google expanding their business model to their driverless cars is not exactly beyond reason as The Next Web’s Roberto Baldwin pointed out:

“The search giant has a history of products that learn about you. As soon as Google launched Gmail, it began gleaning data about its users. Then came Google Maps, Android, Google+, Google Now. With each new feature tied to your account, the Google brain got smarter about your life. Google Now knows when you’re at work and how long it’ll take to get home based on current traffic. It knows what you buy based on your search history and Google Express purchases. It knows which party you’ll attend on Friday thanks to Calendar. All that knowledge could be driving you around town”[8]
But, in truth, it’s difficult to see Google, a search engine company, taking the driverless car to the end zone as we’re more likely to see Google partner up with one of the big car manufacturers or sell the technology outright. Google have a long history of producing software then partnering up with manufacturers that can make use of it as they did with android in partnering up with established smartphone manufacturers[9]

Another factor why Google won’t push to get driverless cars on streets across the globe is they clearly don’t want to deal with the fierce push back they will experience as the advent of the driverless car will guarantee the death of taxi drivers, cabbies, lorry drivers and countless others making the current climate for innovation in the auto industry, to put it mildly, poisonous.

Tesla Motors is running into roadblocks at every turn in simply trying to sell their cars directly to consumers thanks to the pull auto dealers have at state level and Uber is unifying a usually fractious taxicab community fighting tooth and nail to keep their daily bread so Google entering the automobile market and ushering a driverless revolution that renders them useless is not exactly going to be met with open arms.

Taxi cab drivers are even less receptive to Google’s tentative step into the automotive market given their large investment into Uber, the taxi industry main nemeses, to the tune of $258 million via its investment arm Google Ventures[10]. Bill Maris, the current managing partner of Google Ventures, has been talking up the future market value of the app based car rental service and his confidence in its management means, besides Maris doing the job of all VC’s of upselling the future value of their investments, Google aren’t about to cut and run from Uber anytime soon[11].

Ultimately, Uber serves as a useful proxy for Google’s endgame of creating an on demand driverless taxi and/or delivery service quite perfectly as Uber is already looking to develop a fleet of driverless cars which would lower the cost of travel for its growing number of urbanite users[12].

Uber is also engaging in an intense political dogfight with regulators and taxi drivers in the US and beyond but so far the entrenched interests of the taxi cab industry has had the upper hand. Realising this, Uber have made the smart move of hiring David Plouffe, President Obama’s campaign manager in 2008, as their senior VP of policy and strategy as Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick has learned the hard way that innovation is political as it gets.

Plouffe’s appointment already looks to reap dividends as the company is already taking on it political opponents with zeal as Kalanick took advantage of the delicious irony of a Calfornia senator who voted against Uber getting arrested for DUI, a fate he would have avoided entirely if he made use of the company’s service[13]. The company used the Senator’s folly to promote itself as what it really should be, a solution to the very real problem of drunk driving and ultimately an alternative to driving altogether.

Uber promoting itself as a safer alternative is eerily similar to the position held by Google’s x team arguing the benefits of the driverless car. Sebastian Thrun, Google’s driverless car project leader, was using the same talking points during a powerful speech at TED in Brussels citing not the only safety of the driverless car compared to the human driven models but the time and space wasted in driving and maintaining vehicles[14]. In an interview with Foreign Affairs, Thrun cited pretty much stuck to the same position he expressed in his TED speech with only one new talking point: the death of private car ownership as he noted “You can also envision a futuristic society in which we share cars much better. Cars could come to you when you need them; you wouldn’t have to have private car ownership, which means no need for a garage, no need for a driveway, no need for your workplace to have as many parking spots”[15].

So be prepared to hear arguments like this over and over again until your eyes bleed as Thrun, Google and indeed Uber know full well that the demand of for safety and security, especially when it comes to modes of transportation, is never cyclical and is the best political argument for innovation of them all.

In sum, on the face of it, the advent of driverless isn’t revolutionary given the high level of automation used in other modes of transportation but it is intensely political and personal. It’s eventual adoption in the market place will mean a number of established industries will either have to change their business models or die an slowly and ugly death, a fate that interests in the auto and Taxi industry will fight tooth and nail to avoid. However the biggest obstacle isn’t the entrenched interests of the Taxi or auto insurance industry but the sure to be slow rate of adoption among potential consumer who are both enamoured with romance tied to car ownership and concerned about ceding control of their fate on the open road to sensors and elegantly written software.

[1] E. Malcom, 2014, http://www.scotsman.com/news/euan-mccolm-humanity-on-road-to-nowhere-in-driverless-car-1-3497460
[2] T. Worstall, 2014, UK Launches £10 million Driverless Car Experiment: This Will Kill The Auto Insurance Business, http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2014/07/31/uk-launches-10-million-driverless-car-experiment-this-will-kill-auto-insurance-business/
[3] http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3427/Only-18-per-cent-of-Britons-believe-driverless-cars-to-be-an-important-development-for-the-car-industry-to-focus-on.aspx
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] http://www.fastcompany.com/3028586/most-innovative-companies/our-ultimate-driverless-car-report-card
[7] http://blogs.wsj.com/drivers-seat/2013/06/03/the-big-worry-about-driverless-cars-losing-privacy/
[8] http://thenextweb.com/google/2014/05/28/googles-self-driving-car-project-destroy-taxis-uber-lyft-knows-everything/
[9] http://www.roadandtrack.com/features/web-originals/go-news-google-investment-in-uber-might-mean-nexus-cars
[10] http://techcrunch.com/2013/08/22/google-ventures-puts-258m-into-uber-its-largest-deal-ever/
[11] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-15/worth-more-than-toyota-google-ventures-head-says-uber-value-could-exceed-200b.html
[12] http://www.engadget.com/2014/05/08/dnp-watch-out-amazon-google-and-uber-are-just-getting-starte/
[13] http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2014/08/25/uber-ceo-pounces-on-dui-arrest-of-california-lawmaker/
[14] TED, 2010, Sebastian Thrun-Rethinking the Automobile, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_T-X4N7hVQ
[15] Foreign Affairs, 2013, Google’s Original X-Man, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/discussions/interviews/googles-original-x-man

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