Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Google You Can Fly My Car

Posted on | May 28, 2014 | No Comments

“We were promised flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters,” – Peter Thiel

Google’s driverless car prototype is now being shown on YouTube; its network TV alternative. The car has no steering wheel, no mirrors, and no brakes. All you do is search, search, and watch Google TV while the car gets you to your destination. Don’t get me wrong; I like the idea. However, as I pointed out in a previous post, Google sees an opportunity to monetize the road. Here I want to ask the question: What about clouds? Not “the cloud,” but doesn’t Google want to monetize the skies? (update 2019: Larry Page started a company called Kitty Hawk to build flying cars)

This post is a follow-up to my essays “Monetizing the Automatrix” and “Google You Can Drive My Car” about the advertising and search strategies helping to motivate the search giant’s innovations in driverless vehicles. After all, if we can create a safe environment and technologies for the driverless car, would it not be relatively easy to apply those technologies to vehicles that fly?

Wired’s investigation of driverless cars identified some challenges, such as small animals and signaling cyclists. Still, we can expect many safety innovations that will be part of both driver-less and people-driven cars.

Extrapolating from the driverless car, can we expect a flying car? I was recently intrigued by the work of MIT’s Mary Cummings and particularly an article in Scientific American called “The Flying Car Will Finally Fly—and DriveFuture.” It was a special edition called “The Science Of The Next 150 Years: 50 Years in the Future.” It raises the question, will we bypass the Automatrix and go right to the Aeromatrix?

A former Naval aviator, Prof. Cummings has been working primarily on drones, but she makes a connection to the pilot-less flying plane. She cites Internet-inventor ARPA’s support for both driverless cars and drones as being influential. Still, much of her reasoning comes from being a Navy pilot rather than her work as an academic.

Being a fighter pilot, she realized her job was quickly being replaced by automation. Not only did computers fly jets better, but they bombed better. The Tomahawk missile, for example, could hit the tip of a needle from a thousand miles away.

The Scientific American article refers to the Aerocar. Initially built in 1949 and approved by the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), it was a vehicle that could be converted into an airplane in a matter of minutes. In many ways, it is easier for computers to fly an airplane than it is to drive a car. Granted, the consequences of mistakes can be more extreme.

Every kid from my generation was inspired by the flying cars in The Jetsons, the cartoon show about the family of the future.

My contention is that people don’t want to drive all the time if they have another option. While driving can be relaxing and a respite from the day’s grind, they may want to text, surf the Internet, or relax, meditate, or even sleep. Google plans to monetize the road by cashing in on these trends.

A note about my fanciful optimism: I recently taught a couple of MBA courses on innovation, which helped me discern some characteristics that might make the driverless car, and perhaps the flying car, a reality. Whether the driverless car or driverless flying car “takes off” depends on several factors, including government regulation and some tricky safety issues.

But Cummings points out that the trends towards substantially increased safety are significant. What is crucial is if car manufacturers can identify the relevant customer groups. For example, will it attract new customers who opted for public transportation in the past? This market looks limited in the US but might be attractive internationally. How about customers who find cars too expensive to maintain and would rather just use a
Zip Car now? Or Uber? Perhaps subscribing to a car service for a certain amount of hours a week/month? Probably most important group are the frustrated consumers who are willing to pay for the added convenience of having a car drive them to the market, to work, and maybe even send the car to pick up the kids from school.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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