Everyone says they’ll never drive a minivan, until they do. Even Google.
Alphabet subsidiary Waymo is retiring its self-driving Firefly cars for a new fleet of 600 Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The reasons were practical, the Waymo team explains on Medium, with the same tenor in their voice as your buddy who swapped out his Firebird with the AC/DC album permanently stuck in the tape deck for a Kia Sedona that streams Peppa Pig to the back seats. The new vans can drive at full speed and can fit six passengers, while the Firefly was limited to 25mph and two seats.
Google never claimed it was building a car, after all, much like it doesn’t manufacture actual computers, either. The Firefly cars were merely a test platform for Google’s commercialization of autonomous vehicle software. Well, that, and a marketing play on four wheels that introduced America’s 200 million licensed drivers to the idea that a 400 horsepower smartphone might one day be cruising alongside them on the interstate.
Many of us mocked Firefly when it debuted. (When I first saw one at Google’s I/O conference, in my head I dubbed it a car so dweeby that it would beat itself up–and then that felt too cruel to even tweet.) It was a big marshmallow, built specifically to be nonthreatening, with a soft, pedestrian-friendly bumper.
Firefly looks conservative, even naive–because it is. Whereas Google was first on the road with a semi-responsible self-driving car, cutthroat competitors like Uber have been catching up by buying an entire CMU research department and launching self-driving cars across San Francisco without proper permits. Elon Musk cockily introduced “Autopilot” as a self-driving software update for existing Tesla owners, only to cost a driver their life when they didn’t realize that “Autopilot” didn’t mean that the car automatically piloted itself. Firefly, on the other hand, didn’t even have a steering wheel, because Google researchers realized that if a driver was holding the wheel while believing an AI could take over at any time, they might not really be all that attentive, and put lives at risk.
Ask a company like Audi why it doesn’t have a self-driving car at dealerships today, and it will tell you it’s not because it can’t build one. It’s because it can’t build one that’s certain to have overcome the thousands of tiny points of error 100% of the time, whether that means technological errors made by the car or psychological errors made by the driver in it. That’s a good mentality for a car company to have! And yet, it’s also the sort of mentality that a skeptic might say has kept the auto industry stuck using fossil fuels. Google offered a promising compromise with Firefly. It had all the disruption of Silicon Valley boldness, with none of the danger of irresponsible, overconfident development.
In retrospect, Firefly seems like the nice kid who was just trying to follow directions in the front of the class, while some Ayn Rand-reading morons threw pencils in the back. Now, as other companies race to market, the software developed inside those little cars is being implanted in the real thing. Here’s hoping everyone takes their time on their homework.