[Image credit: itMoves]

Last week's widely publicized admission by Google that they have indeed a fleet of automatically driven vehicles goes beyond the anecdotal; it represents a small but very significant step towards clean mobility worthy of the XXI century.

I will not spend too much time on the details: seven cars, 140,000 miles, only one accident (caused by another driver rear-ending the Google car). Of those miles, at least 1,000 were covered without human intervention. Even more amazing, the vehicles were perfectly legal according to the California DMV, since a liable human was always behind the wheel ready to override any error (even if she was not necessarily holding that wheel at all times...)

Of course self driven cars are not new. The Japanese and Europeans have been working on it for many years (Wikipedia has of course some details). In the US, Honda, Toyota and GM were working together at the the National Automotive Highway Consortium back in 1998 (campy Popular Mechanics page here).

While working at GM Advanced Studio, we were a very close second at the 2007 California Design Challenge with our OnStar ANT. Two years later, we also participated on the Puma project, the self-balancing Segway two seater (which were intended to be shown as automatically driven at the Shanghai Expo, althought I am not sure if they accomplished the goal).

So if it's old news, why should we consider it significant?

First of all, because it is Google. Unlike Microsoft (which only success history outside Windows is the xBox console), they have demonstrated that they can expand beyond their core business of searching and do it well. Hubris and arrogance will no doubt take them down one day, but for the foreseeable future, they are on a roll.

Second and most importantly, automatic driving is a direct attack on the emotional basis underpinning the car business: car equals freedom, the empty highway, the road trip, yada yada yada. What the heck, manhood as we know it...

As I have mentioned before, I still consider myself a car-guy, and they will only take away my manual shifter from my cold, dead hands, but I'm part of a minority. For the vast majority of drivers, especially young people, driving is a chore, and the less friction in the system (i.e. accidents, tickets, parking problems, taxes, insurance premiums, etc) the better. And even for car guys like myself, let's not forget: commuting is not driving.

Once personal mobility is separated from driving (in a more efficient, sustainable, and economical way) many of the emotional attitudes attached to cars today (especially the illusionary freedom) become meaningless. Sure, personal expression will still be important, but Design is Cheap (and styling is even cheaper) so choice will not go away.

Furthermore, once personal mobility is separated from driving, a big part of the knowledge kept inside car companies (read barriers to entry) goes out the door: active and passive safety, ergonomics, handling, feeling. Add to it the disappearance of engines and transmissions (if the robot-cars are, as they should, electric vehicles) and what we have is a very different product, a product that finally (finally!) Henry Ford might not recognize.

Why wouldn't car companies simply jump into it? Because established players do incremental change, but rarely change business models, as The Innovator's Dilemma carefully explains. An automatically driven vehicle (preferably on-demand, certainly electrically powered) that doesn't crash becomes, make no mistake, a very different business for companies mainly dedicated to sell quaint ideas about freedom (as if a 500 hp German sedan gives you any advantage over any econobox when stuck in the 405 freeway).

Lastly, they have time on their side. For a company that barely existed twelve years ago, the eight years that will take bringing autonomous driving to the market might sound like a long time, but in Cardom eight years is just two model cycles away; in other words, Google's competition from major manufacturers will be a car 5% better than today's, maybe 6% if they are pushing.

Now if we could only get David Hasselhoff to be driven off the line by the first Google car...