Google has made no secret that the next phase in developing its self-driving car is to get rid of the steering wheel and pedals. And when it announced the truly autonomous, robotic vehicle in May it even showed off a video of some members of the public taking a ride in a prototype. But over the past several days, when that prototype was out on public roads not far from Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters, the company apparently became shy about the project. According to the Daily Post, a local paper in the heart of Silicon Valley that doesn’t post online in real-time, the cars were being tested with no one on board. The spectacle attracted onlookers who were enjoying the summer-like weather in a nearby recreation area. But once security spotted Kevin Herbst and his girlfriend, the couple was asked to leave. “He was kind of rude,” Herbst told the Post.
It seems like Google missed an opportunity to let Herbst and his companion not only watch but also take some pictures and video and tell everyone how cool the car was. This truly is the next big thing, after all. Lacking the visuals, I’ll try to paint the picture for the search giant here. As it turns out, while Google was testing the car Morgan Stanley was releasing a report titled “The Death of an Auto Analyst” in which Adam Jonas, who heads auto industry research for the firm wrote this: “Our team has come to the realization that a prosecution of our craft along traditional lines will fade to irrelevance, ultimately ending in extinction.”
He was being cheeky in making the story a first-person account about the irrelevance of the auto analyst, but the report of course details why the industry itself is on the verge of being upended. I visited this very theme just two months ago here in: “Robo-cars, Uber Will Save Us Billions, Keep Us From Crashing And Put An End To Waiting At The DMV.” Morgan Stanley echoed similar ideas, suggesting that individual ownership of cars would come to a surprisingly rapid end as the self-driving car reaches reality. And there was Google, testing that very car, but keeping it at arms length. The Google X group might want to think about better PR.
Morgan Stanley’s report noted that the typical car sits idle for 23 hours and 8 minutes each day, a tremendous waste of resources. It sees a future in which technology companies, ridesharing firms like Lyft and Uber, and nimble automakers manage gigantic fleets that dispatch vehicles automatically to push the utilization far beyond today’s 52 minutes. Jonas expects adoption to be rapid: “We can debate the curvature of the journey, but to us the destination is crystal clear,” he says. In August, I suggested something similar:
Predictions about the future are almost certainly pessimistic when it comes to adoption of these new technologies. things happen today [much faster] than they once did. While it took decades for the telephone, the automobile, even electricity to fully penetrate society, it now takes just a few years for things like HDTV or the smartphone to find their way practically everywhere.
Tesla tomorrow is going to unveil something new, which could be a partially self-driving car. I’ll be at the company’s Hawthorne, Calif. facility to cover the event, but whether the “90% autonomous” capability CEO Elon Musk recently touted is on display or not, it’s coming to soon to the electric-car maker’s vehicles. And it’s clear Google is making progress on the 100% vehicle. The company has been testing its freeway-worthy self-driving cars for several years now. Spotting those in the Bay Area is no longer a rare site. When they moved them some months ago to the city streets of Mountain View, it became apparent the project had entered a new phase.
Skeptics abound, claiming that the cars will suffer snow blindness, fail to work in heavy rains, or lose their way without highly precise maps of absolutely every street they’re supposed to traverse. But progress is coming fast nevertheless. The laser required for the car to “see” in 360 degrees recently saw its price cut from $85,000 to $7,999. Expect another 80-90% reduction over the coming years as well. GM will join Tesla in delivering a partially self-driving vehicle as soon as 2016 in the form of a Cadillac that can mostly take over on highways like the early Google test vehicles. A similar capability from Mercedes isn’t far behind.
Google, for its part, has chosen to focus on delivering the whole package. Because the company doesn’t have to deliver a car today, it can skip the phase where it offers a partly self-driving car and can focus on the ultimate goal of a dispatchable robotic taxi that can upend the auto industry as we know it and fulfill Adam Jonas’ vision. To do that, it will have to put those truly driverless cars on the roads in plain sight for the world to see. Next time, it might as well let someone take a video and upload it to YouTube. After all, it owns that too.