After long speculation about what Google has planned for its driverless car initiative, another clue emerged this week. A source privy to Google’s strategy told Bloomberg the tech behemoth plans to make its autonomous car project a stand-alone business under Google’s Alphabet holding company next year. Google’s self-driving car operations are currently part of Google X, its research division.
The news has increased speculation that Google may be eyeing the Bay Area or Austin as the launch pad of an actual business based on its autonomous car technology. Google’s cars (one of which I spotted today while on an errand) have logged more than 1 million test miles, mostly in these two locations.
Google hasn’t commented on the news broken by Bloomberg, but in September company co-founder Sergey Brin said that by introducing autonomous cars as a service, the public can try them out while Google continues to tweak the technology. Bloomberg’s source claims Google might first offer a shared-mobility service though small fleets of both small and large vehicles operating in a confined space, such as college campuses, military bases, or office parks.
A get-to-know-me phase is probably a good idea. Polls show one-third of consumers would buy a self-driving car, but two-thirds are not ready to relinquish control of their vehicle to autonomous driving technology.
The success and safety of Google’s road tests suggests such fears are largely unfounded. The cars have been involved in a handful of accidents, but most were the faults of human drivers. In fact, Google says its motivation for developing autonomous cars in the first place is to reduce the 33,000 deaths that occur each year on US roadways.
Given the technology’s potential safety benefits, it was ironic that on Wednesday California’s Department of Motor Vehicles — citing safety concerns — announced proposed restrictions that would severely limit the operation of autonomous vehicles on its roadways — and completely ban “driverless” cars that operate with no human driver.
The outlined rules would require all autonomous cars to have a steering wheel and a brake pedal that a driver could seize in case of emergency. Google has taken a dim view of the proposed rules, saying they would be an impediment to the technology’s progress. If they go through, such rules could send the likes of Google, Tesla, and Uber, not to mention major carmakers, flocking elsewhere to further develop their autonomous car ventures.
So will 2016 see a real-world autonomous car business model come to fruition, or will panicky regulators throw up road blocks that only further delay the technology’s potential? I have a feeling it may be a little of both.
James Bryant is an industry editor for Dun & Bradstreet. Based in Austin, Texas, he writes about issues affecting the global manufacturing sector. He’s been the company’s specialist on the auto industry for 15 years.
Photo courtesy of Google.