How Robot Cars Could Be More Sustainable Cars

Looks like when Google’s (s GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt said recently that he thought it was ridiculous that humans, not computers, drive cars, he wasn’t kidding. The Internets are abuzz this weekend with a report in The New York Times that Google has been quietly building self-driving robotic car technology, based on the work of Google engineer and Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun, who co-invented Google’s Street View mapping service.

While the project is being looked at as an example of just how far outside of its core business Google has been reaching, the prospect of self-driving, computerized cars is compelling because they could make driving more sustainable.

The more computerized a car is, the more optimized it can be for efficiency, sticking to the most direct routes, driving in the most efficient manner (avoiding lots of quick acceleration) and reducing fuel consumption. According to the Times report, self-driving cars could also mean fewer accidents, so car companies could end up building cars that require fewer materials, which would be lighter and more fuel efficient. Robotic cars could also facilitate more resource efficient car-sharing services — say, if a Zip Car you booked could just drive to you when you’re ready, instead of it sitting in a parking space.

Entrepreneurs, investors and big car companies alike have already been turning to software, networks and GPS navigation systems to make driving more efficient. For example, startup GreenRoad, which is backed by Richard Branson and Al Gore’s funds, sells driving services to public and private fleets that reduces fuel consumption and optimizes routes and driving habits based on driving data from a processor, a GPS unit and a cellular connection embedded in the vehicle. Startup the Virtual Vehicle Company has built a mobile app that captures data about how fast or slow a car is driving, along with other details about a person’s driving habits, and creates efficiency services around that driving data (see Car Data As The Next Platform for Innovation, GigaOM Pro, subscription required).

The big auto makers like Nissan are also embedding more IT and computerized services in their latest vehicles, like the recently-on-sale, all-electric LEAF. The LEAF has an AT&T connection, GPS navigation, and applications that show the driver where the nearest electric vehicle charger is and how many MPGs the car is getting at any one time. All of the hybrid and electric vehicles I’ve driven for our weekly Green Overdrive show have computerized systems that encourage and show the driver how to drive as efficiently as possible to save battery life and gas.

The idea of robotic cars that could enable more efficient sharing of cars is particularly interesting to me. Using networks, the web and software to share “stuff,”and rethink the idea of ownership will be one of the most important Internet-based cultural shifts of my generation.  Spride Share, a startup that officially launched last month, is piggy backing on City Car share’s service to expand car sharing to personal vehicles.

Remember, too, that the next generation of electric vehicles and biofuel-based cars will take years to penetrate the mainstream, and in the meantime the shift to more sustainable transportation will rely on IT and more efficient internal combustion engines.

Yes, a lot of this robot car discussion is blue sky speculation. Google’s research is still a decade away from being able to be commercialized and Google might not even find a business case to commercialize it even then. Google has been endorsing robotic driving for years — back in 2006 at CES, Larry Page gave a keynote on the back of the Stanley robot car, which was developed by Thrun and his team.

Still, while robot cars sound ridiculous at first, our vehicles have been in the process of converting into more sophisticated computers for years. GPS navigation systems are now fully mainstream, taking a lot of human interaction out of navigating the road ways. The final step is minimizing human interaction in general. And if we can optimize that for more sustainable driving, it just makes sense.

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