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Commentary & Voices

Google sits at epicenter of auto industry’s future


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This article was originally published in The Hill on May 8, 2018:

To date, California has issued 30 Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permits to a variety of different companies pursuing the golden ring of self-driving capability. The list includes many well-known auto companies — Ford, General Motors, BMW, Honda — and the tech companies you’d expect, including Apple and Google.

Also permitted, a number of lesser-known companies, like Navya, Nuro and Zoox. All are chasing the same goal: a consumer-ready, self-driving-car solution. There are many smart people working on the technology, so if you subscribe to Moore’s Law, get ready, the technology will happen.

The challenge, however, is likely not simply a technical one. It’s also a people problem. That is why we’re particularly intrigued when John Krafcik, president of Waymo — formerly known as the Google self-driving car project — posted a story on Medium inviting people to be part of his company’s early rider program in Phoenix.

With that simple post, Phoenix quickly became ground zero in the race to self-driving cars. It’s a smart, strategic location given its perfect weather and nearly pristine road conditions. Phoenix has an annual temperature of 75 degrees, with only 36 days of rain.

In one study a few years back, Phoenix had a “Pothole Index” rating of just 18.7, the lowest of 13 Western regions, with nearby Tucson coming in nearly eight-times worse at 145.8. While Phoenix won’t address the challenges of mixing autonomous vehicles with sloppy weather, it’s a good place to start. There will be time for bad-weather testing.

The Phoenix program is proof Waymo’s Krafcik, a charismatic, auto industry veteran, understands adoption of self-driving cars poses not one, but two significant challenges:

1. The practical problem: The technology has to work safely and consistently.

2. The people problem: Consumers (and regulating organizations) have to accept it.

Frankly, solving the people problem is the more difficult of the two, even though — let’s be honest — the practical one is practically impossible.

Waymo, however, as part of Google/Alphabet, is uniquely positioned to successfully navigate both self-driving challenges. The practical takes money and knowhow; the people problem involves something more elusive: trust. Even above Tesla, which is both a tech company and a car manufacturer, Google is in an enviable position.

People don’t “touch” Tesla every day as they do Google, where trust is already established. From the most mundane question — “What’s the weather today?” — to the most challenging — “What’s the meaning of life?” — people already trust Google to solve both practical and emotional problems.

Consumer acceptance of self-driving technology will only happen with trust. Cox Automotive, through its brands Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, has undertaken multiple surveys to gauge consumer awareness and acceptance of autonomous technology and self-driving vehicles.

On both fronts — awareness and acceptance — there is building momentum. In a study released this past January, 56 percent of millennial consumers indicated they’d be comfortable riding in a self-driving car.

The studies also show luxury owners are nearly twice as comfortable with the idea of self-driving vehicles, thanks in large part to the exposure of enabling technologies — adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping systems, automatic emergency braking, etc. This indicates that consumer experience with highly-automated vehicles will be a key step in increasing awareness and acceptance of a self-driving future.

Considering the social media opportunities with their Phoenix effort — selfies in the self-driving car — Waymo’s undertaking is an important next step in the march to a future driven by self-driving technology.

Of course, it’s important to remember that comfort and familiarity doesn’t necessarily lead to personal adoption. Many taxi fleets are filled with hybrid vehicles, but that hasn’t led to consumers going home and purchasing one for their driveway.

But you have to start somewhere, so full kudos to Waymo for attacking both sides of the equation. Self-driving technology could eventually save thousands of lives and provide transportation for an aging population, not to mention unimagined opportunities for the physically and mentally challenged among us. Self-driving cars is a game-changer. It’s a cause worth pursuing.

Rebecca Lindland is executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, the most trusted resource for car shopping. Kelley Blue Book (KBB.com) is a Cox Automotive™ brand. Cox Automotive is a subsidiary of Cox Enterprises. For more information, please visit https://www.coxautoinc.com/

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