Google’s effort to develop cars that drive themselves is certainly cool.We understand the appeal of this technology: No human error, no nodding off at the wheel, faster reaction times, eyes in the back of the head, etc. We suspect that, in a few decades, when the technology can be fully developed and deployed, robot-driven cars will kill far fewer people than human-driven ones do.
But we do think it will be decades before such technology can ever be deployed in any meaningful fashion (the legal questions alone will take years to resolve, and wait until the first time one of these cars kills a kid). Of course that in itself is not a reason not to develop the technology.
But we do have to ask:
Why is Google developing this technology?
Why is Google spending the $10+ million of shareholder money per year the project consumes (15 engineers, plus drivers, plus the cars).
Isn’t there something closer to its core business that Google could spend this money on?
Google Apps, for example. Google Apps are cool. But in many ways, they’re still not ready for prime time. Wouldn’t it maybe be better for shareholders if Google spent this money and focus on Apps instead of robot cars?
Or Chrome? Or Android? Or even search?
Larry Page, who is said to be the major force behind the robot-car initiative, is a big shareholder of Google. And if this is what Larry wants Google to spend its money on, he’s certainly entitled to suggest that it do so.
But between this and Google’s wind farms and sleep pods and human-powered monorails, et al, we continue to worry that the company’s focus is spread too thin. And given the intensity of competition the company is facing from Microsoft and Apple, we wish it would be more disciplined. Every minute Larry and other Google bosses spend thinking about robot cars and human-powered monorails is a minute they’re not thinking about how to crush the iPhone.
We also think that, if Larry is determined to perfect robot-car technology, there is a better way to do it–a way that would be better for both the robot-car technology and Google.
What’s that way?
Larry should just found another company to make robot-cars. He can fund it himself. He can hire a CEO and management team and also take outside investors if he likes. All the engineers can get a piece of the action. The company can focus one hundred per cent of its energy and resources on perfecting robot cars. And Google, meanwhile, can stay focused on its core business and other related businesses.
That’s how Jeff Bezos has handled his other interests, by the way. Amazon hasn’t gone into the rocket business. Another company founded by Jeff has. And this Amazon shareholder, anyway, is happy about that. The last thing Amazon needs is to be distracted from its core commerce business by the excitement of building rockets.
There are thousands of cool problems to solve in the world, and we certainly applaud Larry and Sergey for using their talent and wealth to try to solve a lot of them.
But there’s a reason that every rich company in the world isn’t trying to solve every one of the world’s problems: Because focus matters. And Google’s focus, in our opinion, still leaves something to be desired.
*UPDATE: Some readers, who are understandably excited about the prospects for robot cars, have taken this post as an argument against “innovation.” It isn’t. I love innovation. I just don’t think having big companies pay for projects far outside their core businesses is the best way to innovate–for either the big companies or the innovators.
What’s the best way? The new Silicon Valley way: With dedicated start-ups, in which the engineers get a piece of their own action.
In the old days, big companies funded most research and innovation (Bell Labs, Xerox Parc, etc.). In the last 50 years, however, the startup ecosystem has advanced to the point where it is now a much more efficient way to fund innovation.
If having big companies fund innovation were a better way to go, Silicon Valley’s startup engine wouldn’t exist. Instead, we’d all be working for Xerox. Or Bell Labs.