The Oddly Untapped Market: Self-Driving Cars

By Trevor Gilbert , written on March 27, 2012

From The News Desk

Earlier this week, I was almost unnecessarily killed in a car accident.

For those that don't know, I've been living in Florida for the past few months. While there are some good things about Florida, including nice beaches and an abundance of Cuban restaurants, there are also bad things.

Like the quality of drivers.

For a quick example, one of literally hundreds that I could give, let's look at earlier this week. Driving along inside the speed limit, paying attention, a car whips out of a shopping plaza on my left hand side. It is going about 40 miles per hour, and is heading right for my car's drivers door. I quickly slam on the brakes and try to swerve away, while the other driver doesn't even realize what is going on.

Thankfully, my quick reaction meant we missed each other, leaving me with a good opportunity to honk at them for quite a while.

However, this situation, and many others I've been in for the past year, lead me to a conclusion: Someone needs to disrupt the transportation industry. Not only are there thousands of deaths every year, but there are also costs like traffic cops, road maitenance, traffic jams, accidents, car repairs, detours, and delays. If we weren't all so used to this bizarrely expensive system, we'd all quickly realize that this situation is absurd.

States provide a modicum of training for teenagers that wish to learn how to drive, and immediately allow them (us) to drive wherever, and largely whenever. Bad habits aren't corrected and begin to become entrenched over time into the broader psyche of the transporation network. This means a slowly degrading level of quality, as drivers try less and less to do a good job of driving.

This is such a monumental opportunity for startups, it's amazing that not many companies are broaching the topic. Sure, GM has some cool technology in the works. Yes, electric cars are all the rage right now. However, the one company that stands to make a massive fortune off of this is Google -- as well as any other startup that wants to take a stab at it.

For those that don't know and have been living under a rock, Google is working on self-driving cars. While the exact timetable isn't known, Google is continually working with states on legalizing the practice of using self-driving cars. When (and if) this product ever launches, it is easy to imagine manufacturers having the ability to sell cars that drive themselves, all based off of the software that Google provides.

Google will reap massive rewards from this, if it does it correctly, and if it can get the legislation passed and drivers on board. People spend hours everyday driving around, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will notice it is Google that is simplifying and securing their lives. Not only does this provide Google with a great opportunity to market itself, but it could also end up making Android less of a mobile system and more of a car operating system.

In fact, the market is so huge and so empty, that Google could end up being known as a car company in 25 years rather than a search engine. I'd go so far as to be willing to let bygones be bygones in regard to privacy abuses, patent lawsuits, and Search, Plus Your World, all if Google would only come along and throw a grenade into the collective car industry.

Of course, Google could end up scrapping the entire project. With Larry Page solely focused on beautifying, it wouldn't be shocking if the secret labs at Google are shut down, if it got in the way of Google's "true mission." There's no telling what sort of dynamic is at play with Sergey Brin being in charge of the labs, so it's anyone's guess as to what the outcome of such a hypothetical struggle would be. That being said, from the demos that have been made public, it would appear to be a big mistake if Google decided to scrap the project.

While the focus of this has been on Google, it isn't only up to this company to improve the automotive world. If any other manufacturer wants to do this, or if a startup wants to come along and do this, there are billions to be had. This may sound a bit like one of Paul Graham's Requests for Startups. But that's only because it is.