Google and its driverless cars could be building a future where we all work for Google

I called Silicon Valley’s once-and-future futurist Paul Saffo to talk about the role of robots in our lives and an interesting discussion broke out about the utility of Google’s self-driving cars.

(You’ll find my Mercury News column about robots here, by the way.)

While most everybody thinks the idea of a driverless car is pretty nifty, some have questioned Google’s need to be noodling in the field.

But Saffo, the one-time Institute for the Future guy who is now working on his own start-up, says our relationship with cars will undergo a dramatic shift. Think of a Zipcar model for most people, every day.

“Why is Google in robotic cars?” Saffo asks rhetorically. “Well, some people will buy a fully robotic car. But a much more interesting thought is that by the time we get robotic cars, we don’t buy cars at all. We subscribe to cars.”

When you need a car, you call one, or more likely it already knows you need one and it shows up. And where does Google come in? Saffo says think about it: Google already has an army of employees driving Google Street View cars around snapping pictures of everything in sight.

“They get $15 an hour to drive around,” he says, spit-balling the figure on his own. Instead, Google could say: “Here’s our car-sharing service. It comes and it picks you up and it drives you to your destination. Google captures where you start and where you ended.”

The Googlemobiles take Street View photos along the way and they pick up a lot of information about where you go, when etc., which comes in very handy when Google wants to serve you ads that you’re likely to click on.

“Essentially, you pay for the privilege of being a Google employee for the time that you’re in the car,” Saffo says.

Car-sharing just makes a lot of sense, Saffo says. And then he makes a point that supports one made by CEO Larry Page  in a recent interview. Page was talking about how robotic cars could mean the end to ugly (and expensive) parking garages.

“And what does it mean for shopping malls?” Saffo asks. “The car comes. It drops you off at the mall and then it goes somewhere, hangs out and smokes cigarettes with the other robotic cars until it’s time to come pick you up.”

Better yet: How about if it went and got some work done, driving around snapping Street View photos while you cruised the aisles at Abercrombie?

Now that’s progress.

(Photo by Mercury News photographer Gary Reyes)



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