Google's Driverless Future

Will self-piloting vehicles rob us of the last of our privacy and autonomy?


Compared to, say, the slat-armored fighting vehicles commandeered by the U.S. Army's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Google's expanding fleet of autonomous Prii hardly seems threatening. (Yes, for the record, Prii is the official plural of the Toyota Prius.) 

The Google self-driving cars, of which there are now a dozen or so, have the company's familiar, friendly logo plastered on their doors. Their roofs sport laser scanners rotating on spoilers so clunky they seem purpose-built to make the cars seem less technologically disruptive than they really are. "That thing?" you can't help but ask when you look at one. "That's the thing that's going to make Mothers Against Drunk Driving as pointless as a radiator in a Tesla factory?"

Remember, however, what company we're talking about. This is the Google that was recently fined $7 million by 38 states and the District of Columbia for collecting email messages, passwords, and other personal information that had been transmitted over unprotected Wi-Fi networks. (Google says it never looked at the information.) This is the Google that agreed to pay a $22.5 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 for bypassing privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser and that already maintains a massive dossier about your interests and social ties using data obtained through its dozens of disparate services. 

"Our cars have sensors with which they magically can see everything around them," Google engineer Sebastian Thrun exclaimed in a 2011 TED talk. And yet no one ran out of the room screaming. That's because Google has done such an excellent job of positioning self-driving cars as an unmitigated social good that the privacy implications of these lumbering, 3,000-pound tablets have barely been acknowledged, much less discussed. Instead, the discourse has focused on the thousands of annual traffic deaths self-driving cars will prevent, the billions of gallons of gas they will save, and the carbon emissions they will reduce. 

Along with Google, more than two dozen car manufacturers and other entities are currently at work on driverless automobiles. But it's Google that is piloting us toward the radical new transportation reality just around the bend. Earlier this year, in a presentation to the Society of Automotive Engineers, Google product manager Anthony Levandowski said the company "expect[s] to release the technology in the next five years." 

Already a blind person can safely operate the vehicles, which use a laser scanner, radars, GPS, cameras, and high-resolution maps to determine where they are in the world, what else is nearby, and what they need to do to arrive safely at their ultimate destination. Presumably, drunk people can operate them too, not to mention 8-year-olds, 80-year-olds, narcoleptics, problem texters, and possibly even high-functioning border collies. 

Even with this expanded driving pool, driving will ostensibly get safer, because of the car's ability to eliminate human error while assessing and reacting to the world around it. Accidents could drop by as much as 90 percent. And while more drivers will take an increasing number of trips, we'll actually spend less overall time in transit because driverless cars can travel at higher speeds safely. Plus, once you hit your destination you can bail and let your car find a parking space.

Of course, when Google presents its vision of a future where traffic jams have gone the way of pay phones and road rage consists of exchanging angry tweets with strangers about last night's episode of Celebrity Apprentice, an unspoken presumption underlies the narrative: Everyone is just as jazzed about driverless cars as Google is. In this vision there are no congested lanes caused by Luddites putt-putting down the highway at 80 miles an hour in their 2013 Porsche Boxsters. There are no daredevil pranksters gunning their old-school Camaros through standing red lights and laughing uproariously as all the robo-cars slam on their brakes in precise, automatic deference. Everyone has gotten with the program, thus enabling the attainment of maximum safety, efficiency, and energy conservation. 

But is everyone really so eager to see the automobile, which stands as one of history's great amplifiers of personal autonomy and liberty, evolve into a giant tracking device controlled by a $250 billion corporation that makes its money through an increasingly intimate and obtrusive knowledge of its customers? 

Granted, we already use our phones and tablets to tell a growing scrum of data snoops where we go and what we do when we're not in front of our computers. At this point, however, we can still temper our disclosures fairly easily. We can disable the GPS. We can turn devices off completely or even leave them at home on occasion. 

Boot up a Google car, however, and it's not so easy to cut the connection with the online mothership. If you use it as intended—i.e., in driverless mode—you immediately start sending great quantities of revealing information to a company that's already hoarding every emoticon you've ever IMed. Even if it were possible to operate the car in some kind of "manual" mode, you would likely still be sending information back to headquarters. 

In time, Google will know when you arrive at work each morning, how many times a week you go to Taco Bell, how long you spend at the gym. As illuminating as our searches and other online behavior might be, there's still some room for ambiguity. Maybe you're doing all those searches on "brain tumor" because a relative is sick, or you're doing some sort of report, or you're simply curious. Combine that info with the fact that you start visiting the hospital every week, however, and Google knows you've got cancer. 

The driverless car, in short, is a data detective's dream, a device that can discern when you get a new job, how many one-night stands you have, how often you go to the dentist. As demarcation lines between the real world and the virtual world continue to blur, autonomous cars will function not so much as browsers but links, the way we get from one appointment or transaction opportunity to the next. In theory, Google will determine the route to your desired destination based on distance, available infrastructure, and current traffic conditions. But what if Google, which already filters cyberspace for you, begins choosing routes as a way of putting you in proximity to "relevant content"? 

Many people will no doubt love such new functionality. Others will opt out, or refuse to opt in. Others, however, will simply want to stay as far away from self-driving cars as possible. 

Another class of users who may not share Google's vision of the future is those who like the old-fashioned kinetic pleasures of driving. A third consists of people whose professions depend on traditional, human-piloted cars: cabbies, truckers, bus drivers, car insurance salesmen, etc. (UPS drivers and maybe even pizza delivery guys should be fine; someone has to carry the goods from the curb to the door.) 

At, business consultant Chunka Mui characterizes the coming driverless revolution as a potential $2 trillion disruption. Car design will change, with less emphasis on steel and airbags. Overall car sales may drop substantially as car sharing becomes far more convenient. (No more will you have to figure out how to get to the car sharing lot. Your car will automatically come to your house.) Auto financing companies, personal-injury lawyers, and emergency medical personnel will all likely see a decline in business. Local governments will lose major sources of revenue because of reduced moving violations and parking citations. 

Currently it is legal to operate a driverless car only in Nevada, California, and Florida. But as these vehicles become commonplace, demand for a regulatory U-turn will increase. So Mothers Against Drunk Driving will morph into Mothers Against Driving, a crusading organization determined to get America's deadliest assault weapon off the streets for good by advocating legislation that makes it illegal to operate traditional vehicles. It will be joined by countless other organizations whose interests are served best by mandatory driverlessness. 

Granted, legislation mandating self-tracking vehicles is not likely to pass quickly. But give credit where it's due. Years before anyone else had even realized what was at stake, Google was mapping out the coming discourse, paving the way for a future in which driverless cars are a virtuous and inevitable mark of progress, and traditional cars are, like cigarettes and military-style semi-automatic rifles, dangerous goods whose legal status is up for debate. Buckle up, America! We're in for a safe, efficient, and oppressively intrusive ride.