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Why Google wants us all in driverless cars

Posting in Energy

When Google debuted its driverless car a few years back I found it odd that the technology company most famous for a search engine was getting into the car innovation business. But watching the driverless car in action is so darn cool that I didn't mind who made it. Now that the driverless car intrigue has worn off (just slightly) it's a good time to ask: why exactly is Google so interested in driverless cars?

One rather simple theory comes from Technology Review's Antonio Regalado who deduced the answer from a patent he came across issued to Google earlier this year for a user interface that lets drivers know when it's okay to let driverless technology take control of the wheel. Basically, Regalado says, Google is betting that the more it can get "drivers" to safely focus less on the road the more time they will spend on their phones, searching on Google and clicking on ads. It makes sense, but is it really worth the time and effort spent by Google to invest in paving the way on this revolutionary technology? Regalado does some back-of-the-napkin math based on U.S. Census data:

There are 250 million adults in the U.S., of which 119 million work. Of those, 76 percent drive to work alone spending about 25 minutes to get there. Round trip, call it an hour. Times 260 workdays per year. That comes to about 23,514,400,000 extra person-hours a year to play with phones out of about 1,460,000,000,000 hours American adults spend awake each year. Or about 1.6% more free time overall.

Given Google’s revenue of $46 billion a year (and assuming the rest of the world behaves like Americans) the calculation suggests that by freeing up commuters to surf the Internet driverless cars are worth an additional $736 million in search revenue to Google.

Given that most of Google's business comes from the U.S., Regalado estimates that ubiquitous use of driverless cars could bring in as much as $2 billion a year in search revenue.

Of course, even if we don't all move to driverless cars in the the future it should be no surprise that a technology company is putting energy into cars. As my SmartPlanet colleague Mark Halper has pointed out, cars are turning into computers or "smartphones on wheels." That's why we see IT companies like Siemens getting into the car of the future business. We saw this most recently with GM's announcement of 4G cars coming next year. Google is just trying to mold the car of the future into one that's most beneficial to its business. It just so happens that means you may never have to drive again one day.

Is This Why Google Doesn’t Want You to Drive? [Technology Review]

Photo: Google

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— By on March 5, 2013, 2:28 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure