California thinking may backfire for Google's new self-driving car

Commentary: Google is a leader in self-driving cars, but its new, steering-wheel -free model may not resonate globally.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
4 min read

Google Self-Driving Car
Google's new prototype. Google

As someone who loves driving, I found it a little difficult to stomach when Chris Urmson, director of Google's Self-Driving Car Project, told us earlier this month that "People hate driving." Not "People hate driving in traffic," or "People hate driving when they need to get some work done," but simply "People hate driving."

Google's attitude certainly isn't an uncommon one, but neither is it an opinion that jibes with the feelings of the driving population as a whole. Still, so long as the company's team was working on optional systems that would augment existing cars, not exclusively turn them into driverless automatons, I wasn't particularly put off. After all, I hate driving in traffic too -- especially since my car has a manual transmission and my left knee has seen better days.

However, with last night's unveiling of the Self-Driving Car Project's new ride, a little machine with a sad clown face up front and room for two inside, I couldn't shake the feeling that the team's attitude toward driving might actually be something of a detriment.

Inside Google's self-driving car (pictures)

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That's because this car has no steering wheel. No brake or gas pedals, either. Just a button for "Go" and a button for "Stop," plus a little display to show you where you're going. (I'd hazard a guess that the screen would be happy to provide some targeted advertising along the way, too.) This, then, truly is a car for people who hate to drive. Full stop.

There's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, read the comments on the Google blog post announcing the car and you'll see plenty of support for the idea. However, I feel this points to a sort of California-centrism that will be a challenge as Google creates more products less to do with the Internet and more to do with the real world.

California may be the spiritual home of the Internet these days, but it's still part of the real world. It's also home to some of its worst traffic -- and some of the most aggressive drivers, too. Getting in and around LA without getting stuck in traffic or lapsing into a state of road rage requires uncanny timing, expert domain knowledge, and a Zen-like attitude toward the nature of transportation. Further north things are a fair bit better, but any journalist who has spent a day or two hopping from one corporate campus to another around the Bay Area knows that doing so without getting hung up in congestion at some point can be quite a challenge. The sporadic availability of public transportation doesn't help.

Self-Driving car intersection
How Google's self-driving cars see the world. Google

If this was your daily experience, you'd hate driving too, but that reality does not match the rest of the world. It doesn't match the rest of the United States. It isn't even true for the rest of the state of California, for that matter. Rural areas have minimal congestion issues and are full of people who genuinely enjoy driving -- but who might like the ability to let the car handle itself from time to time. If that service came thanks to a friendly brand like Google that they know and associate with high-tech things, all the better.

These other areas of the globe also have something typically lacking in the Bay Area: weather. San Franciscans are legendary for their reliance on comprehensive sets of outerwear. I've spoken to many who have moved there from various parts of the globe and, within 18 months, have completely lost their ability to self-regulate body temperature. It's a sort of acquired state of poikilothermism.

Rain and snow are regular occurrences elsewhere in the world, and they have a huge impact on the performance of the optical and laser sensors that all current self-driving cars use. While radar isn't affected, the laser scanners do a lot of the heavy lifting in these systems, and they in particular don't like downpours or whiteout conditions. Google's autonomous cars, meanwhile, have never even seen snow.

Google's Self-Driving Car Project team
Google's Self-Driving Car Project team Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

The Golden State's weather-free urban areas certainly feature more than enough driving-averse inhabitants to make a very lucrative business model for this sort of thing. After all, Uber, which has received $258 million in funding from Google, launched in SF and has done reasonably well for itself. Also, this is still a prototype, so it remains to be seen whether Google will continue to focus on truly driverless cars, not just self-driving ones.

The thing is, driver safety is a worldwide problem, and autonomous cars stand to radically improve the state of things everywhere. Google, tech powerhouse that it is, could make huge contributions in this space. Perhaps, then, that's why I'm a bit sad to see that its latest step forward is a step away from a practical solution for the global population.