Would you let Google drive you to work? by Seth Weintraub @FortuneMagazine October 10, 2010, 12:57 AM EDT E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons Google is now talking about a autonomous driving technology that it has invented with the help of some of the best minds in the field. Don't play chicken with this Google Car. via NYTimes.com Two weeks ago Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the TechCrunch Disrupt conference something which at the time seemed more than a little off-topic for a web software-focused audience. “It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers. Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense.” I turned to a colleague who was also watching the presentation. She told me, “Uh, oh. Google is getting into cars.” We both laughed. But not long enough. These clues tech CEOs drop always come back around in one form or another… Fast forward to today where the NYTimes and Distinguished Software Engineer/Stanford professor/co-inventer of Street View, Sebastian Thrun at Google simultaneously announced their foray into autonomous driving. And this is pretty big. It turns out that Google has had autonomous cars driving around California for months, notching over 140,000 miles from Lombard St. in San Francisco to Hollywood Blvd. in LA. The vehicles are truly autonomous and were only disabled when extraordinary incidents happened, like a biker running a red light and a car backing up down the street. But they were a long way from being put in to full time use. Most experts believe we’re at least eight years out from seeing autonomous vehicles on our streets. It doesn’t have to happen all at once. Most people have cruise control in their cars. New technology like lane assist is keeping people between the lines. It is a slippery slope. Some (shareholders?) have asked: How will Google monetize the autonomous driving research? There are so many ways that come to mind right off the bat. With their Geo-targeted ads, a Google car could take you past a restaurant or announce stores that are coming up. Taking your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road allows you to do other stuff in the car, like browse the web. Where to pick up gas? How about a Google sponsored fuel stop? Just think about all of the possibilities that Google Maps provide and realize that’s just the beginning. But Google’s founders have been “focused on solving the world’s problems with technology” without the pedestrian goals of making a buck. This project, like many others in Mountain View, likely had its start as one of their wacky ideas to improve the world. Google mentions these noble goals in the post: More than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half. We’re also confident that self-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. In terms of time efficiency, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively. The most important reason for Google’s sometimes wacky innovations in places where it clearly doesn’t have a short term revenue plan is that it the work is inspiring. Google employs lots of engineers. Engineers love this sort of technology-driven problem solving and by taking on these kinds of projects, Google adds a little more incentive for engineers to stay at Google and work hard for the greater good. The team.. On the whole, I’m skeptical of autonomous street bots (soon to be overlords?) but at the same time the possibilities they present are pretty enticing. This is a technology to keep an eye on.