Why a taxi service could make the most sense for Google’s self-driving technology

Given limits to the technology, it may not make sense to sell consumers fully self-driving cars.

Current limitations in fully self-driving vehicles could make it appealing for Google or other companies to initially roll the technology out as a service, rather than selling cars to consumers.

Thursday at a Volvo self-driving car event in Washington, a California DMV official pressed Google’s Ron Medford, the safety director on its self-driving car project, about when and where the car could drive itself. Because Google is removing the steering wheel and pedals, the human driver in the vehicle would not be able to take control in a difficult situation, such as a snowstorm or heavy rainstorm.

“What you’re developing, if it’s at a situation where it can’t go, what am I supposed to do?” asked California DMV deputy director Brian Soublet during a lively panel discussion. “Just wait for it to clear up so it can go?”

“There are lots of ways we can deploy this technology. You’re talking about vehicle ownership,” Medford answered. “That’s one possibility of a model, but there can be other models in which you wouldn’t own the car, and you’d have other available transportation, if for some reason our car wasn’t able to do it today the way you wanted it to.”

“That will work in a massive urban setting. But does that work in rural Kansas?” Soublet countered.

“Right so, no, it doesn’t work in rural Kansas,” Medford replied. “We’re not ready to service rural Kansas. We’re not ready to go into the snow belt, and we’re talking honestly about what the limitations of the car are.”

The technology behind a fully self-driving car would add a significant expense to a vehicle’s price, which may be a cost customers don’t want to pay, especially when it couldn’t be used in the toughest weather conditions. With a ride-sharing service, an operator could have the vehicles running 24-7. With a fleet of vehicles going nonstop, they’d almost constantly be generating profits and covering the costs of the technology.

Their inability to operate in a heavy snowstorm would be less of a drawback, as consumers wouldn’t be relying on the service exclusively for their transit needs. So far Google has tested its cars in Mountain View, Calif. and Austin, where there’s rarely snow.

Medford stressed it seemed unclear yet what was the best business practice for the technology, and that the current focus is on getting the technology right.

“The car that we are continuing to work on and develop is not one that you can drive everywhere, anywhere, all the time,” Medford said. “I would love for us to take where we are today and leapfrog, and we’ve solved all the problems, but we’re solving many, many of them now. And will continue to solve them.”

His remarks on the business potential echoed what Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in late September at a demonstration for journalists.

“It remains exactly open how we’re going to roll it out,” said Brin, who added that in the near term the upshot of making a service was letting a lot of consumers try it out, and being able to back-up and refine the technology.

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