Innovation (on the) Super-Highway

Quietly, there was a gear change in motoring this month. A car drove onto the public road for the first time in California. No, wait, this gets more interesting. I actually mean the car drove itself, without a driver. Just a computer and a very large number of sensors doing the steering, braking and accelerating. OK there was a passenger there to grab the wheel in case a computer crash caused a car crash. But California has now joined Nevada in allowing cars to roam the public highway deciding when to stop and how fast to go.

For years, Google has been working on the first self-drive cars. For years, that work took place on old airfields and private roads. Now it’s all out on public view as the technology is tested to prepare the road (OK – no more puns) for commercial deployment. And that’s no longer too far away. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said he wants to bring autonomous vehicles to the market in five years. Five years – it’s taken longer than that for European manufacturers to bring already proven hybrid (electric-petrol) engines to their brands.

This is fascinating on a number of levels. The car industry seems to be asleep at the wheel (sorry) on this one. The boss of a large UK marketing agency with whom I was talking last week had never heard of the driverless car – although his largest client is a major car brand. Then look at who is doing the innovating here. To be fair, Google’s not the only one researching the technology, but the rest are academic institutions, not the manufacturing giants of Detroit, Munich and Tokyo.

But for me what really stands out here is that for once, I am writing about audacious innovation. Not an incremental improvement or a new service idea. But something with the potential to transform our ideas about transport. With a driverless car, we could allow those with disabilities, those without licences, the very old or the young, even those who have stayed late at the pub, all to get home. We could set our cars to go back home after they’ve dropped us at work. We could have self-serve taxis and delivery vehicles. We could eliminate bad driving, drastically reduce road traffic accidents. Suddenly we can transform our roads and perhaps reclaim our cities.

Because for all the innovation that we’ve welcomed since the internet became a part of our lives, there isn’t much in the last ten years that transformed our day-to-day existence. I am reminded of the motto of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm started by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel: “We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters.” Last year Thiel told the New Yorker that he didn’t consider the iPhone a technological breakthrough. “Compare this with the Apollo space program,” he said holding up his iPhone. Twitter gives 500 people “job security for the next decade,” he says in the interview, but “what value does it create for the entire economy?”

It should be no surprise that Google is behind what I argue is a real example of audacious or disruptive innovation. Whether it’s culture, the founders, 20% time or freedom from VCs, they’re in an almost unique position of being able to invest time and brilliant thinkers in cracking some pretty interesting challenges. Of course driverless cars are not a cure for cancer or a solution to the world’s looming energy crisis, but they do have the potential to change a part of our everyday lives in a way which most, even today, might dismiss as a wacky sci-fi idea.

When I was at school (let’s just say a long time ago), the 21st Century was going to be an era of interplanetary space travel and bacofoil suits, an era of leisure where computers did all the work and humans did no more than a few hours of work a week. Somewhere amid financial crisis and short-termism, we replaced the dreams of a bright future with an era of political pragmatism. The driverless car might not be single-handedly take us off down an Innovation Super-Highway towards that bright future, but it feels more exciting than sitting behind the wheel in the traffic jam of incremental change.

This blog post was first posted on The Foundry’s blog. The Foundry is where I have the pleasure of spending my working hours.