Google held a press briefing on self-driving cars this week. At the end, it gave journalists rides in a self-driving car.
The technology that powers Google’s self-driving car is so impressive, and so magical, that it’s now “boring,” according to veteran technology writer, John Markoff. For some context, it took the iPhone five years before it was so enmeshed in our lives that it was labelled “boring.”
Self-driving cars are one of the coolest, most mind-blowing technologies in the world. If they become a reality, they can save millions of lives and radically alter how we spend our time.
Earlier this year, Google CEO Larry Page said of the self-driving car project, “I’m super excited about the possibilities of that improving the world. There’s 20 million people or more injured per year [by cars]. It’s the leading cause of death for people under 34 in the U.S.”
I’m sceptical of self-driving cars, though. They feel like the sort of thing busy technology executives want, which is not necessarily what normal people want.
It reminds me of Google Glass. The original premise of Glass was that people wouldn’t be looking at their phones, they would be glancing at Glass to see emails and texts. The idea was that it was more socially acceptable than looking at a phone.
This might sound like a good idea to people in the tech industry, but for real people in the real world, it’s awful. Glass makes you seem constantly distracted, and odd. It has the opposite effect of its intention.
With self-driving cars, the aim is noble. People don’t have to drive. Robot cars can be safer. And, we’ll be able to spend more time online, checking email, and Facebook.
But people aren’t going to be comfortable and trusting of self-driving cars. And so it will be an uphill battle.
Even if Google can convince people that robot cars are safe, there’s another problem — real people like their cars. They enjoy speeding. They enjoy driving around. They like the freedom and the control that comes with their car.
For this reason, I am sceptical that people will ever really want self driving cars. Maybe they will use the feature from time to time. And maybe it can work in a city where cars move at a crawl, and driving is like sticking a rusty spoon in your eye ball.
But overall, I just think Google underestimates our love of cars and driving.
(A better solution for car safety is what Elon Musk is doing with Tesla. It’s a car that’s super safe, and incredibly fun to drive. If Google wants people to be safer in cars, it should just buy Tesla, then slash prices. That would get safer cars out on the road. Over time, it could add the self driving feature to Tesla and see if people use it.)
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