Monday, June 2, 2014

California thinking may backfire for Google's new self-driving car

As someone who loves driving, I found it a little difficult to stomach when Chris Urmson, director of Google's Self-Driving Car Project, told us earlier this month that People hate driving. Not People hate driving in traffic,or People hate driving when they need to get some work done,but simply People hate driving.

Google's attitude certainly isn't an uncommon one, but neither is it an opinion that jibes with the feelings of the driving population as a whole. Still, so long as the company's team was working on optional systems that would augment existing cars, not exclusively turn them into driverless automatons, I wasn't particularly put off.
After all, I hate driving in traffic too -- especially since my car has a manual transmission and my left knee has seen better days.

However, with last night's unveiling of the Self-Driving Car Project's new ride, a little machine with a sad clown face up front and room for two inside, I couldn't shake the feeling that the team's attitude toward driving might actually be something of a detriment.

That's because this car has no steering wheel. No brake or gas pedals, either. Just a button for Go and a button for "Stop," plus a little display to show you where you're going. I'd hazard a guess that the screen would be happy to provide some targeted advertising along the way, too. This, then, truly is a car for people who hate to drive. Full stop.

There's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, read the comments on the Google post announcing the car and you'll see plenty of support for the idea. However, I feel this points to a sort of California-centrism that will be a challenge as Google creates more products less to do with the Internet and more to do with the real world.

California may be the spiritual home of the Internet these days, but it's still part of the real world. It's also home to some of its worst traffic -- and some of the most aggressive drivers, too. Getting in and around LA without getting stuck in traffic or lapsing into a state of road rage requires uncanny timing, expert domain knowledge, and a Zen-like attitude toward the nature of transportation. Further north things are a fair bit better, but any journalist who has spent a day or two hopping from one corporate campus to another around the Bay Area knows that doing so without getting hung up in congestion at some point can be quite a challenge. The sporadic availability of public transportation doesn't help.

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