Google announcement that it has a team working on testing autonomous vehicles came as quite a surprise for most people, but, while some praised the company for such a bold move, others have asked why would Google do something like this in the first place since it's unlikely to wield it any monetary results in the foreseeable future.
Well, you can probably realize why autonomous cars are such a big deal and how it could impact the world. The prospect of cars driving themselves, taking you to work and then your kids to school, for example, is not hard to fathom.
Google states three major benefits the technology could lead to. "Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use," wrote
Sebastian Thrun, the head of the Google project and a respected researcher in the field
"[S]elf-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new 'highway trains of tomorrow.' These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads," he added.
Each year, 1.2 million die in car accidents around the world and many more are injured. Google says that the technology has the potential to drastically lower that number and it's easy to see why.
There would be no more drunk drivers, no more distractions like texting causing accidents, no more human error. Of course, computers will make mistakes, but, overall, cars should be safer.
But there are other practical advantages as well. Humans aren't very good at making the most out of roads they have at their disposal and countless traffic jams attest to that.
Computers, with access to a central software keeping tabs on traffic conditions and each individual car on the road, would be able to judge which routes are the fastest and shortest, in real-time.
At the same time, cars aware of each other's presence would be able to drive at highway speeds even centimeters apart, sharing information and making split-second decisions, such as an emergency break, which humans would never be able to take.
Computers don't have tempers either and don't make judgements based on assumptions. They would be able to drive in the most efficient manner possible, lowering gas emissions.
Apart from these practical considering there is also the convenience factor. Driving can be fun and there are a lot of car enthusiasts out there, but few would regard the daily commute as anything more than a chore. The time spent driving to various places could be used in any number of ways, either getting a head-start on work or catching up on the latest news.
Google can afford to spend money on this type of projects since it's one of the richest and most profitable companies in the world. And the fact is, any company that would be able to create a technology like this and make it viable for mass consumption is going to make money from it.
Just from licensing the technology to car manufactures Google could make billions. Or it could even outsource and build its own car. Ten years ago, the idea of a Google-built phone seemed equally preposterous.
Indirectly, there are a number of ways Google's mapping products could be integrated into these cars and in which advertising could be served. As people get more reliant on having access to information everywhere, features like these will become prevalent in cars.
Americans spend on average 52 minutes per day commuting. If that time, multiplied by hundreds of millions, was spent doing something else, for example, using an Android smartphone to browse the web, Google would see a significant rise in traffic and in revenue. Few companies would not be able to monetize such a powerful technology.
Another way Google benefits from this is from its image, for both users and prospective employees. Google is a largely engineering-focused company
and has over 20,000 employees worldwide.
Even so, a talented software engineer has a wide choice of companies to work for, a project like the autonomous vehicles portrays Google as a company where hard technological problems
are being tackled.
Google may be doing it for the good of the world, may be doing it to get richer, or to raise its profile with users, in the end it doesn't really matter. What matter is that someone is thinking about these sorts of challenges which may take even decades to solve. The real question isn't why Google is doing it, is why aren't all of the automotive companies doing it.