By Ben Valentine
After enjoying a short vacation, I finally read Google's post unveiling their brand new self-driving car prototype. I was surprised by just how disappointingly adorable the transformative car was. Their release, "Just Press Go: Designing a Self-Driving Vehicle," didn't mention why their exciting vehicle had such a kawaii face-like appearance, but our Core77 readers knew why: people are never comfortable with radical shifts. What we don't understand, we fear, and driving is dangerous enough already, thank you very much.
Forumite c4b7 believes that the launch video and surprising design is a "way to make a drastic societal change simple and intuitive." Another user, Cyberdemon elaborates, "Given the amount of scary lasers, cameras and sensors, if it looked like an F117 Stealth Fighter it may be cooler, but probably scare the crap out of people." I completely agree.
We needed the awkward and hybrid Prius before an extremely cool, sleek, and fast Tesla could take hold in the market. This type of transitioning of new technology into public acceptability is usually mitigated by distance and the price tag. Usually nobody but a few wealthy organizations can afford to experiment with new technologies at first. We only catch glimpses of the latest robots from DARPA through YouTube where we can safely watch them at a distance. If they were being tested first on our streets we'd freak out.
The problem (and the excitement) with Google is that their product is only really impressive if it can share the same roads as everyone else. To do that, Google has to get us comfortable with that idea first, even if the technology works perfectly well. This is a similar problem Google faced with Glass, and it seems like they're learning from their missteps.
To investigate this problem further, I color coded Google's recent article, to help reveal the underlying logic behind the short post and design. Unsurprisingly, the post mirrors what our commenters saw, Google emphasizes that this is still very much a test, and safety, above all else, is of the utmost importance. (Of course, if this car is anything like my Android phone, it's going to give new meaning to the word "crash.")
Interestingly, Google is also attempting to rebrand the self-driving car as offering an entirely new driving experiences—which it does—by dismissing driving as an entirely unenjoyable task. The self-driving car, Google claims, will transform mobility by offering a newfound freedom and comfort. The first paragraph even uses the term, "burden of driving;" a hard sell, considering that Americans love driving. The irony is that one of the biggest burdens associated with driving is a case in which you aren't driving or in control: traffic congestion. Even as gas prices soar and we are more cognizant of global warming, we still love to cruise around in our cars.
Michael DiTullo (yo) seems to want it both ways: "I've sat in LA traffic for 2-3 hours... sitting in that I'd much rather be sitting back reading or doing some email." But at the end of the day, he still wants "a 350+ hp beast that I can flip into full manual mode when there is no traffic... and not have it report my driving data." The strong sense of freedom and agency associated with cars is in complete opposition to a self-driving and constantly surveilled vehicle.
Meanwhile, Google does little to say how transformative this self-driving car could be. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 32,367 people were killed in car accidents in 2011, making them more deadly than guns, but to suggest that that might change with this new car may possibly be too futuristic for us to handle. As discussion board member BUSHBY points out, "This is an exposure exercise not a product launch, the removal of the steering wheel is a big enough of a change to freak most people out. Everything is designed to put the general public at ease as much as possible..."
Whether a self-driving car is the answer to congestion and dangerous roads remains to be seen, and it's fascinating to see Google tiptoe around the fact at the heart of the debate. Instead, I see a company trying to awkwardly rebrand one of America's favorite activities (driving) as a burden; promising safety through experimentation (on your roads); and the glimpses of the first Stack to add a car to their long list of wares. We can debate the merits of this all we want, and I hope we do, yet watching radically new technology slowly slips into our range of acceptability is a fascinating lesson for any R&D team. What past science fiction writer would have created the future of today so weird and yet so normal?