Google Jangles Auto Execs; But Will Driverless Cars Really Ever Happen? – Forbes
By now it’s pretty clear that nothing strikes fear into the heart of an auto-industry executive like the word “Google Google.” To traditional car czars, it’s like whispering “boo” in a really scary haunted house.
But what if all the hype Google is generating about its “self-driving” cars ends up being just that — a lot of hype?
It’s not that this insidiously growing corporate monster isn’t capable of producing truly autonomous golf carts; clearly, Google is. Google is capable of shaking up nearly any industry that relies on bits and bytes and probably some that don’t. Lately, for example, with its purchase of Nest Labs Inc., Google even has been portending a challenge to the 100-year-old regulated model of the electric-utility industry.
Yet maybe self-driving cars won’t be all that earth-shattering anyway. Could the accelerating race among auto companies and Silicon Valley types toward driverless automobiles turn out to be a lot like the breathless derby to produce all-electric cars that still preoccupies much of the industry even though, outside the “1 percent,” it’s pretty clear western consumers aren’t all that interested?
For one thing, it’s bogus to assert that driverless cars are required to address the issue of traffic accidents and fatalities. The number of U.S. auto-crash fatalities was declining steadily for years until very recently, when distracted driving, thanks largely to texting, reared its ugly head. But surely there are less drastic solutions to that development than removing every American driver from behind the wheel.
As Holman Jenkins recently argued well in the Wall Street Journal, “those who think the driverless car is just around the corner will be sorely disappointed. To revel in the future that the visionaries hold out, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable.” His point was that, for anyone’s driverless system to be effective, every driver in America would have to be involved. And the legal, cultural and regulatory obstacles to such an outcome just won’t allow that to happen.
It would require not only “expensive onboard systems in every car but wireless networking that would likely raise privacy and personal autonomy fears far more alarming to many Americans than whether NSA computers are scanning their mostly boring emails and text messages,” Jenkins wrote. “Imagine a National Rifle Association for car owners.”
The way Michelle Krebs, analyst for AutoTrader.com, sees it, such cars “will not be driverless completely — they will be cars you have the choice to drive or not drive. There are so many legal and insurance and regulatory issues, and none of them are being resolved.
“There are certain places this approach makes sense, such as heavy commuting cities where autonomous cars could run essentially like train cars without a track — mass transit. That makes brilliant sense. Or these cars could be programmed to handle most responsibilities on long, boring drives, including commutes. In those ways, they will extend the mobility of aging baby boomers, which is where the biggest market is, if you believe that Millennials really don’t want to drive.”
Continued Krebs, “It’ll be basically like it is now with EVs and hybrids — most people still will be driving traditional cars.”