Google recently unveiled its latest driverless test car in California. It was a two seater with no driver controls or steering wheel and looked something like a cross between a toy car and one of those old bubble cars.

I wondered what might happen in a crash but to be fair the test car isn’t intended for road use and is anyway limited to 25mph.

Far more ‘normal’ looking was the demo at the last Frankfurt Motor Show by Mercedes of a computer-controlled S-Class.

But while mainstream auto makers like Daimler, Volvo, Toyota and BMW – along with supply chain firms – are pursuing autonomous vehicle technologies, none of them are trying to take the driver out of the picture completely.

Google is trying to do just that, however. It wants to be ‘transformative’. And in so doing, Google is keen to stress the positives that could come with completely driverless cars.

Such cars may not be here for a decade or more but when and if they do arrive they could revolutionise transport – at least in urban areas.

Having a fleet of semi-autonomous electric or hydrogen cars to hail at our disposal in cities – the ultimate driverless ‘Uber’ on-demand taxi app – could help make roads safer, less congested and cleaner and could free up occupants’ time to do something more useful or fun than just drive their cars.

City congestion in particular could be reduced as old ‘steering-wheeled’ cars are phased out and people hail driverless cars with the tap of a smartphone app as and when they are needed.

And by the way, on that Uber-connection, Google recently made a $258 million investment in the Uber on-demand taxi service through its venture capital wing Google Ventures. One wonders why.

What’s more, the ill and immobile could enjoy much enhanced mobility and freedom.

The young could access personal mobility without the need for a licence. Accidents and insurance costs could be cut dramatically.

A laser sensor is shown on top of a Google self-driving car on exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
A laser sensor is shown on top of a Google self-driving car on exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Pubs, especially in rural areas, might come back to life as late night drinkers won’t be able to drink and drive (of course they may have a problem telling the car where to go if they are too inebriated).

High speed motorway cruising could be made much safer and quicker in computer controlled convoys. And lots of fuel – whether fossil fuel, electric or hydrogen – could be saved.

Last year, Morgan Stanley predicted that autonomous cars would go on sale by the end of the decade, at first costing about 10,000 dollars more than conventional cars. It reckoned the “social and economic implications are enormous. Beyond the practical benefits, we estimate autonomous cars can contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the US economy alone, with global savings estimated at over $5.6 trillion”.

Of course, there may well be downsides for society and individuals as well. Think of these three scenarios, for example, all flagged up recently in the media:

1. Hackers gain control of driverless car networks and shut them down, or cause crashes;

2. Your partner’s divorce lawyer asks in court for a record of what journeys you have taken from your network provider;

3. Your insurance firm wants to know why you have been to a certain part of town at night and terminates cover when you refuse to say why.

So passengers in driverless cars get freedom to move (when allowed to by governments), but others will be watching – whether the auto makers, insurance firms or the state.

Of course, there are many technological and legal hurdles to overcome before driverless cars appear on our roads. On the legal side, what if a driverless car is in an accident? Who will be responsible?

But back to Google. How can a non-auto challenger expect to take on big established auto players?

Well, if Tesla has made a go of it with electric vehicles then maybe Google can do the same with driverless ones. And if ‘transformative’ is the word, then there’s no reason why existing, path-dependent big auto firms should be the ones doing the transforming. And given Google’s investments in a range of related technologies, maybe their vision is indeed a network of self-guided, electric or hydrogen powered vehicles in urban areas, summoned with a tap on a smartphone and able to take fee-paying passengers anywhere.

The chief executive of Uber, Travis Kalanick, is reported as having recognized the connection, and is quoted by the TechCrunch blog as saying “when there’s no other dude (i.e. taxi driver) in the car… the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.”

So when thinking of the driverless ‘Google car’ of the future, think maybe of the autonomous taxi.

* Professor David Bailey works at the Aston Business School

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