When you’ve chronicled the tech business as long as I have, there’s nothing better than those rare days when you stare the future in the face and realize that nothing will ever be the same. I experienced this feeling the first time I saw a web browser. I had it when I first held the iPhone. And I felt it again in late May of this year, when Google showed off its driverless car.
Seeing the vehicle, which resembles something between an old Volkswagen Bug and an electric golf cart, evoked that similar mix of elation, joy, nostalgia–and, yes, a bit of fear. Google’s vision is typically audacious. What if society went from owning vehicles to renting on demand? And what happens if your vehicle becomes just another node on the network, where the cloud can provide intelligence and services? Like the iPhone, the Google car will reset our expectations for what a computer can be.
Driverless cars use a technological megatrend to address a demographic one. Go to any big Asian city–Mumbai, Shanghai, Beijing, Manila, Delhi, or Jakarta–and you’ll see the demographic challenge: roads that are often clogged with traffic. This is a problem that could metastasize. UN data point to our society becoming more urban, with more metropolises of 10 million–plus inhabitants emerging in the next decade. The technological trend that could help address this is the cloud. We’re giving up music ownership for a streaming service available on demand. We rely on computers to help airplanes fly. With each passing day, we are becoming more “autonomous,” letting machines do our thinking. If we can use sensors, networks, software, data, and machine intelligence to improve these experiences, why not also harness the technology to attack our mass-transit concerns?
We don’t yet know whether Google wants to manufacture cars or simply offer software to the auto companies. (The latter would be a smart-car version of what it does with the Android mobile operating system.) What we do know is that Google is setting the pace for thinking about the car as a “laptop on wheels” and what happens when you link all those laptops together. An intelligent, driverless-car infrastructure could enable resilient and robust transportation systems that could ameliorate chaotic urban traffic. A driverless-car network would be capable of real-time adjustments, ensuring that the right number of cars are on the road exactly where people need them.
The learning could work both ways, actually. What Google and others glean from these driving machines could actually help influence other technology systems and networks. “Driverless cars may lead to the emergence and adoption of new approaches to network architecture and design that can impact the Internet itself,” says Bhaskar Krishnamachari, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
Google isn’t the only one interested in self-driving vehicles: Audi, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla Motors, and Netherlands-based Mobileye are all working hard to figure out the future of the car. But Google is the most intriguing player, because none of the auto traditionalists have Google’s computing chops. The good news is that perhaps the auto manufacturers will make significant investments in their software, networking, and cloud-computing capabilities and learn to iterate on the kind of weekly or monthly pace that Google does.
Driverless cars open up vistas of innovation but also visions of potential trouble down the road. We may be ready to let go of the wheel, but are we prepared to lose jobs when drivers become as outmoded as tellers and typists? With fewer cars needed, what happens to the 1.5 million Americans who work in the U.S. auto ecosystem?
I am torn between excitement and worry. What if we end up in a Wall-E world, a Trotskyian techno-dystopia? As humans, we don’t want to cede control to a machine controlled by other machines.
But the more I consider the Google car, perhaps that’s the point. A century ago, the shift from horse-and-buggy to the Model T led to a decades-long awakening of our imagination for what a car-powered society could be. The United States built nearly 4 million miles of roads, changing where and how we lived, as well as what we could achieve. The Model T may have been fairly unexciting from an aesthetic design perspective (much like this first Google car), but it changed human potential forever.