Consider for a moment the anxiety many feel boarding an airplane. For various reasons, usually involving some kind of horrible death, people have nightmares before traveling. These passengers will board said plane with the goal of attempting to deplete the aircraft’s generous supply of alcohol to ease their panic. Not everyone flies on a consistent basis and, while it’s no longer a luxury since it’s been affordable for some time now, it’s still a secondary mode of transportation for many Americans on a daily basis.
I write the above as a primer for the sheer excitement — and terror — people are feeling about the emerging technology of the driverless car. While the actual technology essentially exists right now, it’s far from complete and even further away from being rolled out on a national level. Aside from perfecting, and I use that term loosely, the actual system that keeps you from dying when you’re hands free and otherwise occupied in your car, there is a need to have a standardized communication system that will allow all vehicles to talk to each other for collision mitigation and traffic flow.
Google’s Driverless Car Technology
Enter Google. The tech giant is a major driver of this technology and has invested very heavily into building a vehicle that can drive itself. Drive down streets in Mountain View and Palo Alto and you will see driverless cars rolling along, doing the speed limit and obeying signs with annoying perfection. Google’s latest beta test is interesting, but Google knows it has a long way to go before it can call the project ready for action.
Now here’s the thing… Google doesn’t care about their driverless car. Specifically, the vehicle itself. They know that every car company from Ford to Mercedes and everyone in between is furiously working on perfecting their own car. These companies have decades of vehicle development and luxury car makers have the advantage of already catering to a base that is brand loyal and won’t want to drive something that looks like a cross between a VW Beetle and something out of Running Man.
While this obstacle is not insurmountable for a company that can literally pour billions into development and hire the best people, Google knows the real money to be made is not in the car, it’s in the technology.
Seeking a Unified Communications Protocol
With all these makers creating their own driverless vehicles, what we lack to make all of this work is a centralization of protocol and infrastructure to help guide the vehicles. Yes, these vehicles will have GPS and proximity sensors, but what if these mechanisms fail? The NTSB will have to create a vehicle-to-vehicle communication standard so the vehicles stay on the road and avoid crashing.
Relying on human intervention in case of failure is not practical. Once we are all comfortable putting our lives in the hands of these cars, most won’t be paying attention or react fast enough to prevent failure. By creating a vast wireless infrastructure throughout the US highway system, and eventually normal roads as well, we can safely control cars and also connect them to the internet.
Will Google Provide the Driverless Car Infrastructure?
This is where Google is interested. They want to be the company that provides the infrastructure that all cars, regardless of make, must adhere to. This has the potential to turn them into a trillion-dollar corporation and they’re beyond excited for this prospect.
Consider the potential for revenue that Google is in a position generate from providing this. They could secure a government contract to supply the entire United States with infrastructure. This alone is billions, if not hundreds of billions, over time. They could license their technology to any car maker that wants a vehicle on US roads and the makers would have to purchase it.
The evidence of this direction Google is taking is all around us. They have been paying heavily to break into various geographical markets to provide fiber internet. This mostly pays for itself as people pay for their service, however, Google’s main goal is to provide infrastructure spanning vast distances.
They need to beat, or even buy, Comcast and Time Warner as well as some smaller ISPs to control the system from stem-to-stern. The only reason why this move hasn’t happened yet is because of antitrust concerns as well as a heavily regulated market in areas that have exclusive deals with current ISPs.
Enter Alphabet. Google’s parent company lets them spin off other companies so Google doesn’t technically own the infrastructure and shifts another potential monopoly aspect out of Google’s control. Alphabet just announced in December that the self-driving car will be its own entity outside of Google. This will happen in 2016 and signifies that the diverse approach towards different verticals is critical to Alphabet’s future success.
Android Auto’s Integration
Further, Google has introduced Android Auto, which is positioned to compete with Apple’s vehicle integration. Android Auto establishes relationships with the automakers as well as gives Google a platform to develop the full integration for in-car internet, GPS and other control systems.
With Android Auto, the vehicle’s head unit, or radio, could be based on ChromeOS and suddenly every corporation that advertises with Google could advertise themselves in real time as their potential customer drives by their store. Is your car driving you by Macy’s? Stop in now and you’ll get 5% off! We already know you like to shop here thanks to Google’s knowledge of your spending and browsing habits!
Major advertising partners of Google’s with brick and mortar locations absolutely love this idea. Online retailers could pay a premium to have the car’s stereo search for alternative deals to Macy’s while you’re driving by so don’t have to stop. Amazon alone will pay heavily for this.
Google’s engineers have also been developing and honing a voice recognition system to compete with Siri and now Cortana. They’ve been doing this for years, and thanks to their Google Voice offering, have been perfecting this technology for integration into the vehicles. They have been working to make this system as lean and flexible as possible so it can be quickly integrated into any head unit brand any car maker could use.
Google to Become a Known Player in Infrastructure
The last piece will be for Google to win the government contract — making them the conductor of the symphony that is standardization of all pieces required to make an infrastructure for driverless cars a reality.
Already they’ve been aggressively bidding other government projects, including a $2 billion Department of Defense contract for redoing the health care data systems. While they lost this bid to another large entity, it shows that they’re now moving into a realm where few corporations have competed, or even can compete.
The competition for Electronic Medical Record (EMR) databases is fierce and Google learned that in order to be more competitive they have to establish themselves as an industry leader first. Cerner, the winner of the contract, was a known player prior to bidding. Google needs that reputation for the driverless car.
Google wouldn’t mind selling cars and they probably will. Taxis and other services vehicles could easily be Google-made and I’m sure there will be a few sold to individuals, but Google is not betting on long-term growth for consumer car sales. If it happens, great! It if it doesn’t, they’ll own what they wanted to: the technology to run the whole system and the ability to advertise in real time.
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