We're not going to talk about ice buckets or YouTube challenges, don't worry.
I was at a barbeque this past weekend, and a friend asked me why Google's self-driving cars matter, and why a search engine would even care about engaging in that kind of innovation. I just wanted to grab a hot dog and talk about this past season's Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Calling Google a search engine - at this point in time - is like calling Amazon an online bookseller. It's what got them started, it makes them some good money, but it's not the long play. Google is a technology company that is doing it's best to help people get information... about anything. What most people fail to realize about innovations like self-diving cars, is what they're going to do to help us rethink technology to save lives.
It's not about putting an end to drunk driving.
Self-driving cars will save lives. Not just the hundreds of thousands of people who are killed or injured because of impaired driving every year, but for a myriad of other reasons. Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article titled, New Era in Safety When Cars Talk to One Another. If you can read between the lines, this article is less about cars and more about a fundamental change in technology that will not only make the roads much safer, but is likely to impact almost any kind of product that plugs into a wall or requires batteries. What the article very saliently points out is something that set my brain on fire when I had the privilege of taking part in a test drive with one of Google's self-driving cars about a year ago in Phoenix. I was sitting in the back seat of the self-driving car and speaking to the two engineers from Google (one was in the driver's seat but not touching the steering wheel, the other was in the front passenger seat with a laptop that was connected to the car's many systems). The questions went from, "how does the car know the difference between a branch on the road or a baby?" to, "how does the car handle against road construction or some kind of sudden issue?" The answers to those questions were summed up in a way that I had not thought of before: the computer system is designed with sensors and connected technology that enables it to know, see and react far better than any human. On top of that, it is their hope that all cars will be connected and communicating to one another as well. Just imagine when we can say the same thing about every connected device.
What does that mean?
- The car is filled with sensors (internally and externally) that gives the passenger more information than they (as a human) could ever capture on their own.
- The car can react to a situation much faster than any human being. If you were impressed with how fast a calculator can figure out math over a human being, the stuff they're talking about when it comes to self-driving cars is staggering.
- The car can see a lot further. The next time you're driving a car, try to figure out how far ahead you can see. These cars can see, calculate and compute a massive multiple over what we can do.
- The car is connected. It's also able to manage information like weather, traffic, historical data and more that enables it to optimize in real-time. That, in and of itself, is a pretty incredible thought.
What happens when this becomes the norm?
It will be like plumbing. Just like you go to the bathroom instead of heading out into the wilderness to find a spot, you will not think twice about, flushing a toilet, turning on a light or getting into a self-driving car. If this technology comes to fruition (and, it's hard to imagine it not being an inevitability), we will probably look back on these past years and wonder how we ever did anything with all of this human-based driving. The bigger concept (and the one everyone needs to think deeply about) is this: what if the cars are also connected, speaking and interacting with one another. That's the crux of the New York Times piece above. That's the crux of understanding how fundamentally interesting the technology is going to be when lives are saved because the car's are telling either the human driver or the self-driving CPU that seven cars ahead, someone just slammed on the breaks or whatever. Information us mere mortals would never ever know.
Connecting is good. Connecting with insights is better.
As far fetched as this technology may seem to you (it feels very real and soon-to-be in market to me), it points to an interesting perspective that brands fail to understand when it comes to something like Facebook or Twitter (which seems a little pedantic in comparison). Just because brands are connected to consumers and interfacing with them through technology, it doesn't mean that they're actually taking those interactions and daisy-chaining them on to other instances to create a better brand experience. A self-driving car could be meaningless. A self-driving car that is sharing information and talking to every other car in its vicinity and providing better decision making power back to how its functioning is a complete and utter game-changer (and, if I'm using a word so puke-inducing as "game-changer" you know it must be serious). Yes, brands have to be connected. Now, more than ever. Sadly (for the most part) we're not doing much to elevate the experiences and make the journey for the consumer that much more smooth.
That's the real opportunity here.
Self-driving cars, social media, content marketing, mobile experiences, whatever. Pushing beyond the primary function of being connected is going to create the real shifts and massive opportunities going forward. I told my friend at the barbeque that Google's self-driving cars will change the way that we see transportation and affect the entire infrastructure of travel as we know it (if they can pull it off). The truth is, that I feel the same way about brands and what they're truly capable of in this day and age.
Perchance to dream.