Google is building an autonomous driving system. So reports the New York Times in a story yesterday. As writer John Markoff puts it, “The Google research program using artificial intelligence to revolutionize the automobile is proof that the company’s ambitions reach beyond the search engine business.”
Well, maybe. After all, if you’re driving in an autonomous vehicle, there is no reason why you can’t be applying makeup, eating a ham sandwich, listening to Wilco, and Googling at the same time. The car is driving itself. You’re just a passenger.
If you’ve ever spent much time driving in Silicon Valley and north through San Francisco, you know that when you’re on the 101, you’re probably just as well off applying makeup, eating a ham sandwich, listening to Wilco, and Googling, because forward progress is something that happens in tiny increments and not much more. (Note: This should not be construed as encouraging this behavior while driving. Listening is OK, but the other stuff should wait until you actually have an autonomous vehicle.)
Autonomous vehicle development is certainly nothing new. Since 2004, the Pentagon has been holding DARPA Challenges that have put cars and SUVs in a variety of driving scenarios aimed at getting drivers (in its case, it would be soldiers) out from behind the wheel, and companies and universities—as in General Motors and Carnegie Mellon and Volkswagen and Stanford—have been producing vehicles with more prongs than a porcupine.
Some people in the automotive community may pooh-pooh companies other than those with motor oil in their veins from having anything to do with the auto industry (companies like Tesla are roundly criticized for not having the slightest idea of what the car industry is all about, which makes one wonder whether that was sort of the same sort of thinking that carriage makers had when guys like Olds and Buick started building their contraptions), but in this case it may be that the folks at Google see the car as nothing more than a computing platform that happens to transport atoms along with digits.
And given that Google is making a whole lot of money while the traditional car companies are working exceedingly hard at making little, maybe new entries are precisely what’s needed.