Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Google, You Can Drive My Car

Posted on | November 8, 2012 | No Comments

One of Steve Jobs’ unfulfilled dreams was to design and market the iCar. Although the details of his vision have not been released, we can be sure it would be sleek, expensive, and innovative. It’s a shame we no longer have his energy, intelligence, and promotional charisma because transportation in America and around the world is experiencing many economic and public safety issues that make it ripe for a radical transformation in the next few decades.


Apple is working with a few major car companies to integrate Siri as part of its “Eyes Free” program. The strategy is to integrate Siri into the car so it allows drivers to access it for directions and other search functions. Most likely, it will work with basic touch controls embedded into steering wheels, while natural language processing will provide a more extensive user interface. Unfortunately for Apple, its mobile advertising platform, iAd, has performed poorly and its Apple Maps even more so, causing heads to roll at one of the world’s most heavily capitalized companies.

It is Google that is currently leading this “automatrix” transition with its work on the driverless car, drawing on Google Maps and integrating them into their highly successful advertising programs. Adding cars to this already $40 billion business model lends itself to a potentially central role in the new transportation system and gives a new definition to the term “mobile.” It’s not that Google is likely to become the new “GM,” but that it’s looking to that other “mobile” for its new revenues.

I’ve written before about Google’s vision of monetizing the road and the importance they put on the driverless car. More than anyone, they seem to realize that the information superhighway may, in fact, be the highway. Driving itself creates a data stream of personal consumption habits, route preferences, and roadside memorabilia. As I previously wrote, “Google, who wants to organize the world’s information, clearly sees your car as a major generator of that data and the car occupants as major traffic generators – the good kind of traffic – on the web, not the road.” The bet is that the allure of driving your car is second to jacking into your informational and social networks and that the vectors of data-rich trails can be monetized. Less driving means more surfing and more searching.[1]

The current trend toward more mobile phoning and texting raises the issue of driving safety.[2] It seems like every day I see more and more people talking on the phone or even keying into their smartphone while driving. A recent recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) calls for a ban on cellphone and texting while driving. Add driving while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, putting on makeup, road rage, eating, and other distractions, and it’s clear that human driving is becoming a major public health issue. While this may not be a new issue, having an alternative is new, and tests show that they might be safer than your human driver.

Sure, the driverless car sounds like a fanciful scenario, but there are technological and personal signals that suggest such a change might be coming. I’ve mentioned some of the technological developments above as well as the increasing concern over safety with texting and other distractions. On the personal side, I would point to what economists call opportunity costs. What are people giving up by having to drive? Do people feel that they would rather spend their time in the car doing other things? How much productivity or even “downtime” do people give up while driving their vehicles?

On the other hand, are people willing to give up the control that comes with driving? Would they trust the Automatrix to deliver them safely, accurately, and on time? Moreover, what are the other psychological factors that would keep people glued to their steering wheels?


[1] For a history of the driverless car by Sebastian Thrun and Chris Urmson.
[2] Statistics on driving while distracted.
[3] Introductory video on solar painting.
[4] The Economist had an interesting article on the trajectory and implications of the driverless car.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of 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, Marist College in New York, 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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