Google announces urban driving milestone

News from Google’s project is rare, but today on the Google blog they described new achievements in urban driving and reported a number of 700,000 miles. The car has been undergoing extensive testing in urban situations, and Google let an Atlantic reporter get a demo of the urban driving which is worth a read.

You will want to check out the new video demo of urban operations:

While Google speakers have been saying for a while that their goal is a full-auto car that does more than the highway, this release shows the dedication already underway towards that goal. It is the correct goal, because this is the path to a vehicle that can operate vacant, and deliver, store and refuel itself.

Much of the early history of development has been on the highway. Most car company projects have a focus on the highway or traffic jam situations. Google’s cars were, in years past, primarily seen on the highways. In spite of the speed, highway driving is actually a much easier task. The traffic is predictable, and the oncoming traffic is physically separated. There are no cyclists, no pedestrians, no traffic lights, no stop signs. The scariest things are on-ramps and construction zones. At low speed the highway could even be considered a largely solved problem by now.

Highway driving accounts for just over half of our miles, but of course not our hours. A full-auto car on the highway delivers two primary values: Fewer accidents (when delivered) and giving productive time back to the highway commuter and long distance traveller. This time is of no small value, of course. But the big values to society as a whole come in the city, and so this is the right target. The “super-cruise” products which require supervision do not give back this time, and it is debatable if they give the safety. Their prime value is a more relaxing driving experience.

Google continues to lead its competitors by a large margin. (Disclaimer: They have been a consulting client of mine.) While Mercedes — which is probably the most advanced of the car companies — has done an urban driving test run, it is not even at the level that Google was doing in 2010. It is time for the car makers to get very afraid. Major disruption is coming to their industry. The past history of high-tech disruptions shows that very few of the incumbent leaders make it through to the other side. If I were one of the car makers who doesn’t even have a serious project on this, I would be very afraid right now.

Disruptions to current car manufacture

I doubt any of the current car manufacturers have anything to fear from the sale of automated vehicles for at least a decade.
The first automated (and probably Electric drive) vehicles will be very expensive, think Tesla with automation.
While there might be automated vehicles on sale in less than ten years, the first few years of sales will be for the bleeding edge consumer able to support the high price vehicles, and the market there is for cars like the top end Mercedes, BMW, potentially some supercars and down to Lexus and Infinity style (perhaps). I cannot imagine in the next decade seeing a $30k automated vehicle simply due to price sensitivity at the lower end. Even dressing up a Prius to automated control is going to price the vehicle out of the range of most, and the idea that "getting back" the time on the freeway would make this more palatable seems unlikely.

Value of the time

Oh, the time is quite valuable. The average American spends an hour a day in the car, though I don’t have figures on how much of that is highway.

If you set it as 150 hours per year, and it costs $10,000 and is paid back over 5 years, that requires only valuing the time at around $13/hour. Which is barely over minimum wage. Huge numbers of people bill out their work time and many hundreds of dollars per hour, and some are smart enough to value their personal time as much as other people value it.

Of course, it’s not a perfect equation. Some people are partially productive now (on the phone.) And people will not be 100% productive at work tasks in the car, though they will be able to be close to 100% “productive” at personal tasks like catching up on video, surfing the web etc. But the number is still huge. The USA spends at least 50 billion hours/year driving, mostly non-professional.

But if you had a car that, once you got on the highway, let you do your own thing interrupted until the off-ramp, there’s a lot of people who would pay well for that. But that’s still not the big value.

Value of time

I'd suggest that the largest percentage of commuters cannot value their time at the wage rates they are paid and they can't do their job in a is at work and they are lucky to have a job.
There are those who can work on the telephone or a laptop or tablet, but they are not the majority. Those with this flexibility tend to be in the higher income brackets with much more discretionary spending power. It's always great to look from a position of plenty and proselytize how things will be made better for the lower half, but they live in an on demand world, with limited ability to respond.
The median income in the US for two worker families is $62k, for single worker families it drops to $26k. $62k is about 2*$15 an hour, $26k is minimum wage (borderline poverty). Credit card debt is about $7k per household and median debt is about $70k. They are below the waterline. Are these folks your target consumer, do they really get to plan 5 years out?
When it comes to public transport such as busses and trains, the likelihood of any occupants doing productive work drops dramatically (unless of course you want to consider the first class passengers coming in from the Hamptons) and automation adds nothing to the equation.
The first people you see taking advantage of the automated car is not those who could benefit the most, it'll be the guy reading the WSJ or doing business over the phone ....certainly not they guy working in a phone response center.

Car Hardware Companies Might Be Ok

Imagine if instead of driving their cars, everyone could choose to have a taxi ride for 1/2 the cost per mile (I'm sure Brad has a proper realistic guess). Why would anyone not want to do that? Even if it had to start in (foreign?) cities with large extant taxi fleets, I think Google's smartest plan would be to own all the cars themselves or license that operation. Then the fleet managed cars would be even more economical and cooperative. In that scenario, they'll still need the hardware from somewhere since I doubt that Google will be machining engine block broaches anytime soon. Everyone seems to think there will be a phase where "luxury" cars will have some extra fancy cruise control, but the moment people sort of, kind of don't have to pay attention, their attention will drop from "low" now to "zero". I think Google needs to go all the way and have a taxi/transportation service that leverages their software, maps, data, networking expertise. Maybe there will be those who don't "get it" at first and will want their own "luxury" car, but to me, the ultimate luxury is not driving the damn thing.

We'll get all those

I meet people who insist they will own, and so will many others. I meet people who ask why anybody would bother to own a car. The real market will offer both and both choices will be strong, I think. As well as those who use old-style cars that don’t drive themselves.

In rural areas, ownership will continue to dominate since a taxi won’t come on 1 minute’s notice as it does in the city.

And the unknown question is the people who love to keep stuff in their cars. Families in particular do this a lot.

Good Point

Yes, you're right. Rural users will also have no problems with parking. They will be more affected by the empty return trip with not so many people using a taxi and a longer trip. It still seems like a very clever informatics company could sell them a service that promises that a car will be there when they need it (performance guarantees) while at the same time allowing it to be used for deliveries or snow plowing, etc, at night. Fungible cars could bring in produce and livestock while always guaranteeing people can get around. I can understand a farmer wanting very close access to a pick up truck or something, but perhaps they could be swayed by having the exact specialized vehicle they really need for any given task. I think it's clear that for city dwellers who must pay high costs for parking, insurance, finding parking, etc, a taxi service will be very compelling, especially with ride sharing. This makes me wonder how the economic dynamics will play out for those who want or need a privately owned car. Private cars may be as hard to acquire as a telephone pole, i.e. they're everywhere but I wouldn't know how to obtain one for myself.


Understand that even in New York, where owning a car makes no sense and parking is hugely expensive, we still have 25% car ownership. Which tells us that while car ownership is not “in the blood” of Americans inherently, those who are wealthy enough still do it when it is not very practical.

Rural includes a lot of people, not just farmers, by the way. This also applies to the more remote and less dense suburbs too.

But yes, those rural people, even though they own a vehicle, will still make use of a summoned vehicle for special purposes, or or 2nd car uses. It make take 10 minutes to get one but that’s not that bad, similar to Uber, and no problem on trips that are planned even slightly.

licensing the design

Couldn't car manufacturers license the design once it works well enough to sell to the general public? If Mercedes can ship an electric car based on Tesla powertrain, it doesn't seem unreasonable they could ship a Google driving system also, or even that Tesla could license from Google (or buy a spinoff), improve on it, and license the whole package to Mercedes.

Also, with Google Shopping Express already making deliveries in the Bay Area, Google has a direct interest in making delivery driving cheaper. So the technology could be a big win for them even if passenger cars never use it. Let alone if you can tell your Android phone "find me some coffee" and the car drives you to whoever paid the most to rank highest in search.

How long do you think it'll

How long do you think it'll be until the gear strapped to the roof is small enough (or aesthetically pleasing enough) to be integrated into an ordinary automobile? Would it need to be miniaturized before mass deployment? Would miniaturizing require different technology be used, say cameras rather than lidar?

Quite soon

There is no particular challenge in making it small or “pleasing and integrated.” However, I don’t think early adopters want that. They want a car that looks distinctive, shows what they are doing, like a Prius. However, for those who want to hide, that will not be super hard.

Big differentiator

I'd like to see Google's driving system generally recognized as way ahead of the rest. It is annoying to hear Google's effort mentioned as an afterthought in articles that mostly report on what the car companies are doing. Reporters express amazement at the Bertha Benz route and not mention that those miles are a drop in Google's bucket.

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