Technology blogs and journalists are praising the likes of Google, Tesla and many others. This is great, those companies are creating terrific products. They are innovating in a market that has been relatively slow to turn around and that has been plagued with various degrees of problems. So why you wonder am I writing this after the title I put up? The short answer… Google, Tesla, and others are NOT the solution or the disruptors of the auto industry.
I’ve gone off on several rants on Facebook, Google+ and in some cases on Twitter. I really do not want to discredit the advancements Google has made on self driving cars. I also am not looking to discredit Tesla for releasing an electric car. But those products are only scratching the surface of what a full car that can fully disrupt the industry should be. I know, you are probably saying “well Tesla is selling cars”. Yep, you are right. They are good cars. But let me ask you this, are they available to anyone? Is it an inconvenience for you to buy one?
First let me start with Google. They’ve been showing off their self driving cars ever since they started developing it. Google unlike any other auto manufacturer likes to show off what they are building from the start. Long before it is even ready for the market. Here is the video of what an early prototype of the Google self driving car looks like:
Neat isn’t it? Well yes it is. But here I come to burst that bubble to say it is far too early a prototype to be excited. First of all, how do you think this car would fair in an accident? Even if the Google car somehow manages to be entirely bug free, many others will not have self driving cars and there is that possibility of someone else crashing into it. Next, think about the weather. I’m sure many of us have driving in less than ideal conditions and it isn’t easy. In fact, the Google car is unable to cope in poor weather conditions. Generally speaking when the weather is terrible out, we shouldn’t be driving either. We do anyway. We still need to get to work, pick up the kids from school, or do groceries. Forget about trying to drive through snow, how about those times when you are driving along and suddenly you hit a patch of black ice. Many of our instincts aren’t the best in those situations, but imagine a computer trying to get you out of that situation and then continuing to drive along. As it stands, the self driving cars simply do not have the necessary logic to have the sort of cautious driving we humans would have.
Even if we were to ignore those problems, what about the cost of making such a vehicle? Lidar that Google uses as the “eyes” for its cars costs around $70k. Add the GPS array which go for around $200k. This doesn’t include the cost of the car itself. A lot has to be done before the technology is essentially packaged into something that is consumer friendly. I already see cars on the road which albeit don’t get washed more than once a year. I personally cannot stand my car going without a car wash once a week. Others clearly do not have that problem. Will these “eyes” still work just as well dirty as they do clean? How difficult (or easy) is it to actually clean them?
I’m not just randomly coming up with these limitations or problems. They are well documented problems that have been around as long as the industry has been working on autonomous vehicles. Here is an article from Business Insider, an article from Fast Company and another from PBS that state some of the challenges I mentioned. Not that the problems are unsurmountable. You simply won’t see a full driverless vehicle in the near future without gradual product releases.
Jesse Stay, whom I follow on Facebook has brought up an interesting topic: Ford’s Future Competition Won’t be Cars – It Will be Software. Though interesting, I cannot say I agree with the post, for various reasons. For many cars aren’t just a way to get from point A to point B. Cars are something that they bought because it is useful to them and it is a product they like. Often people buy cars based on safety, reputation, fuel economy and appeal. Software is none of that. Few bought Ford vehicles because it had Sync, instead they bought Ford because they liked the cars. Even to this day the most popular vehicles in North America are the pickups and people buy them to work.
My goal, as I mentioned, is not to discredit the innovation but rather put forward the notion that many challenges exist and we aren’t going to see a full driverless car for at least 10 years. Google isn’t the only one that is working on this technology either. Many of the top automakers have been working on this technology for decades now. They tend to keep their advancements to themselves however, as automakers have always done.
We are seeing the result of their advancement and innovations in today’s cars. Today we have adaptive cruise control for those who are too lazy to adjust their cruising speeds as they come up to someone. We have vibrating seats when a car is in your blindspot and you are about to exit your lane. You also have self braking cars for those moments when you simply aren’t paying attention and something comes out of nowhere. And for those who are extremely lazy, the self parking feature. I suppose with all the distractions drivers have, these kinds of features are good to have.
I’ll end on this note for the night, while leaving what I have to write on Tesla for another post. The technology and advancements made by companies like Google are great. However they are only scratching the surface. Google doesn’t have the expertise to release cars to the market. Google has always been a company that has released products, found a few critical bugs while the product was out and pushed out patches. A bug free product is crucial here, lives are at stake. Is that something Google can do? Will Google need to partner up with an automaker to have its technology be used by the masses? Can Google turn their innovations into a sort of operating system as they have with Android? I’d certainly like to see more innovation, but the Google approach to the auto industry is a very concerning one to me.