Why Google's "ridiculous" looking car is brilliant


It's not too surprising that the release of images of Google's prototype robocar have gotten comments like this:

Revolutionary Tech in a Remarkably Lame Package from Wired

A Joy Ride in Google's Clown Car says Re/Code

I've also seen comparisons to the Segway, and declarations that limited to 25 mph, this vehicle won't get much adoption or affect the world much.

Google's own video starts with a senior expressing that it's "cute."

I was not involved in the specifics of design of this vehicle, though I pushed hard as I could for something in this direction. Here's why I think it's the right decision.

First of all, this is a prototype. Only 100 of this design will be made, and there will be more iterations. Google is all about studying, learning and doing it again, and they can afford to. They want to know what people think of this, but are not scared if they underestimate it at first.

Secondly, this is what is known as a "Disruptive Technology." Disruptive technologies, as described in the Silicon Valley bible "The Innovators Dilemma" are technologies that seem crazy and inferior at first. They meet a new need, not well understood by the incumbent big companies. Those big companies don't see it as a threat -- until years later, they are closing their doors. Every time a disruptive technology takes over, very few of the established players make it through to the other side. This does not guarantee that Google will dominate or crush those companies, or that everything that looks silly eventually wins. But it is a well established pattern.

This vehicle does not look threatening -- not to people on the street, and not to existing car companies and pundits who don't get it. Oh, there are many people inside those car companies who do get it, but the companies are incapable of getting it in their bones. Even when their CEOs get it, they can't steer the company 90 degrees -- there are too many entrenched forces in any large company. The rare exception are founder-led companies (like Google and Facebook and formerly Apple and Microsoft) where if the founder gets it, he or she can force the company to get it.

Even large companies who read this blog post and understand it still won't get it, not most of the time. I've talked to executives from big car companies. They have a century of being car companies, and knowing what the means. Google, Tesla and the coming upstarts don't.

One reason I will eventually move away from my chosen name for the technology -- robocar -- along with the other popular names like "self-driving car" is that this future vehicle is not a car, not as we know it today. It is no more a "driverless car" than a modern automobile is a horseless carriage. 100 years ago, the only way they could think of the car was to notice that there was no horse. Today, all many people notice about robocars is that no human is driving. This is the thing that comes after the car.

Some people expected the car to look more radical. Something like the Zoox or ATMBL by Mike and Maaike (who now work in a different part of Google.) Cars like those will come some day, but are not the way you learn. You start simple, and non threatening, and safe. And you start expensive -- the Google prototype still has the very expensive Velodyne LIDAR on it, but trust me, very soon LIDAR is going to get a lot less expensive.

The low speed is an artifact of many things. You want to start safe, so you limit where you go and how fast. In addition, US law has a special exception from most regulations for electric vehicles that can't go more than 25mph and stick to back roads. Some may think that's not very useful (turns out they are wrong, it has a lot of useful applications) but it's also a great way to start. Electric vehicles have another big advantage in this area. Because you can reverse electric motors, they can work as secondary brakes in the event of failure of the main brake system, and can even be secondary steering in case of failure of the steering system at certain speeds. (Google has also said that they have two steering motors in order to handle the risk of failure of one steering motor.) Electric vehicles are not long-range enough to work as taxis in a large area, but they can handle smaller areas just fine.

If you work in the auto industry, and you looked at this car and saw a clown car, that's a sign you should be afraid.


Hello Brad

Discovered your blog and site a few days ago and am enjoying getting into some of the detail on the future of self-driving cars. The launch of the Google prototype has highlighted that most media coverage of this technology is very shallow and hasn't properly explored what the world might look like when it, inevitably, reaches the market.

I just had a quick question on LIDAR. You said that it's going to become a lot cheaper in the near future. Is that simply because of the scaling up of an experimental technology into production volumes, or is there something on the horizon that's going to bring the price down? Also, I have been wondering for a while if the rooftop LIDAR unit will ultimately be able to be boxed in (the way that radar units are on aircraft, for example) rather than exposed, where they are both vulnerable and compromise the aerodynamics.

Incidentally, in an article in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/28/google-driverless-car-mobility-safety-taxi-drivers), Steve McNamara, general secretary of the 10,500-strong London Taxi Drivers' Association, is quoted as saying: "You won't get these [driverless cars] in London for 20 or 25 years. Maybe by then they'll have a charge point – because there isn't a single one in London now."

Strikes me that the LTDA needs a general secretary with a more realistic view of the future, because if he seriously thinks we're a quarter of a century away from widespread adoption of self-driving cars, I think they are in for problems...

There are so many things that are going to make LIDAR cheaper. Today it is made in small batches, for research.

  • Volume manufacturing -- that alone can make the price drop to something quite affordable
  • Design for Manufacturing -- not yet done, but combined with what's above it's even cheaper
  • Moore's Law -- makes many of the components get faster and cheaper
  • Actual innovations -- LIDAR has never gotten the attention a mass market product gets. People are working on better optics, better designs for more range, better speed, lower cost.

Look at how much DVD and CD players cost at first, and what they ended up costing when they became a consumer product. No idle comparison, those are spinning laser based products too. Not automotive grade safety products of course, so we won't see LIDARs at the $10 point a DVD drive is.

We don't need it to be that cheap. It's not going on your personal car, not at first. It's going on a taxi, where even if it costs $10,000 that's just 3 cents/mile over the life of a common taxi. And it's not going to cost $10,000. Would you pay 3 cents/mile extra for what LIDAR gives? Plus a margin? Of course you would.

Not to mention going all-in with old people. They hold the wealth, and they vote. Contrast with, for example, Samsung's sexy millennials on wearables ads.

When you face legislative battles, get the boomers on board.

They are not early adopters. However, they are pragmatic, and if they are really losing their ability to drive, and their freedom with it, they will do what it takes, even if it scares them.

I can't notice how well vehicles like this could solve the one huge downside to car sharing businesses such as Uber and Zipcar. That downside being getting the empty vehicles to the next customer. A vehicle that makes its way to the next customer, even if it gets there at 25mph via back streets, will add a new dimension to their service.
These car sharing services are successful even without this ability so it makes you wonder what the effects of this convergence of technology will have on their popularity.

Brad, even though the car itself looks like a toy , that really doesn't matter. The company that has the best self driving technology will fully commoditize the automotive market and will get to determine fates in the industry. Why? because customers will decide which car they buy based upon this feature - which is pretty clear to most people.

So could you please expand a bit on automotive managers way of thinking ? of them not getting this basic stuff ?

They are not of one mind, but they don't see their market going away. In fact, they see it expanding with new countries moving up the economic chain and all wanting cars. They worry China will compete there but this is traditional competition.

BMW had it as their slogan to sell "the ultimate driving machine." This is in their blood, and not just BMW's. It is what they have sold for 100 years. The most radical change of late has been an electric drivetrain, but those cars are designed to look and feel just the same, except where the feel is a clear advantage, like the acceleration of electric motors.

Brad, Your comments are all dead on correct IMO. Lidar and all the actuators will indeed become cheap. My question: I wonder why is it just Google who has noticed this opportunity? Ok, I see that the car companies have too much inertia to not do what they've always done, but is there no one else? How about something like GE or Siemens? They make electric motors, industrial controls, and transportation systems. Why has only Google seemingly picked up on this? It's nice, and all, but odd to me. And do you see all other organized forces (companies, governments, etc) just sitting idle until Google takes over the world's entire transportation infrastructure? The efforts of all other companies combined seem weak compared to Google's. Are they all skeptics who think that it will never work (or not in a time frame worth considering)?

As an engineer and programmer, I personally would love to participate in advancing this technology, but since there's really just one company to work for to do so, I am a bit at a loss. I have tried doing my own personal research to advance the state of the art, but I wish I could do more. Any suggestions?

And finally what do you think will be the new name of this technology if not "cars"? (I agree, robocar is like horseless carriage.) Will we call them simply a "Transport?" It seems that we call pocket computers "phones", so maybe the "car" word will stick around just for nostalgia.

Thanks for your blog and excellent analysis.

Prevailing "wisdom" has been that the problem is too hard, decades away.

The car companies didn't really start their projects in earnest until Google published they were doing it, and showed them up. Suddenly budgets appeared.

It's risky, it's daring. Few big companies would try this (outside of military contractors where the military takes the risks.) Google is an unusual big company.

For small companies, until recently it was something that was at least 7 years away, beyond the time horizon of venture investors. That's changing, and startups will appear soon.


Met you at Think Performance yesterday. Great presentation


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