Google's self-driving pods might be great, but we need to calm down on predicting the distant future

By James Robinson , written on May 28, 2014

From The News Desk

Behold, the future!

Pivoting from, but apparently not abandoning, its previous policy of altering existing vehicles to make them self-driving, at the Code Conference yesterday Google unveiled its new custom built pedal-less, steering wheel-less, electric two-seat driving pods.

Discussion of the unveiling got euphoric and fast. Would self-driving cars eliminate private car ownership and public transport and how many less cars would be needed to meet global transport needs? The New York Times quoted research that speculated that current taxi fares could be brought down by over 85 percent. Tech writers found them straight up cute.

It is a great thought. The only shame is... it’ll be years until we get to test out these exciting hypotheses. As if to indicate that we’re bored with all our current modern luxuries, we’ve made a habit lately of getting too far ahead of ourselves in excitedly outlining the probable impact of new technologies.

But at some point, it must be acknowledged that this is really not helping. While Oculus Rift is still (at minimum) a year out from its consumer release, infinitely more people have heard about the company's $2 billion sale, transformative potential, and the post-mobile future it supposedly represents than actually know how it works.

You know that feeling of watching a movie that you’ve heard too many people rave about? Imagine trying the first, roughest iteration of a new consumer product that for two years you’ve been hearing will change your life.

Companies need time to iterate on their products and consumer adoption and usage to evolve organically based. Consumers take to certain uses of a product and ignore others. Things that seemed a lock, aren’t.

Look at wearable technology. Every article on wearables notes what a transformative technology it is, quotes from a variety of research estimating what the market will be worth in five years: $8bn$12bn$50bn? Major consumer electronics companies -- Samsung, SONY -- assumed we’d all take to the smartwatch like it was the second coming. People really didn’t. Google turned a set of glasses into a computer, but early adopters and evangelists have been drowned out by a general consensus that the product looks ridiculous and comes burdened with privacy concerns.

Wearables is a perfect examples that new technology isn’t always good technology – especially in its earliest iterations. No matter how excited we get thinking about it, we don't know how it will go until real consumers are using it in real ways.

People get too far ahead of the game and then turn around and respond by getting mean. 3D printing is a transformative technology, which isn’t quite there yet. At the consumer level, machines are still chasing a level of quality and an ease of use that hasn’t been realized. The market could be worth tens of billions of dollars, but not for 10-15 years. Anyone that works in 3D printing will tell you that the market now needs to be regarded as something analogous to the desktop PC market in the 1980s. Instead, the collective imagination has gone crazy and then reality didn't deliver fast enough, we turned around and saddled it with the dreaded ‘bubble’ tag.

Yes, there are infallible economic, environmental, and public safety arguments for self-driving cars. Brin said yesterday that Google is going to make a 100 of these two-seat pods and get them out on the road for tests in Mountain View ASAP.

But mass-market self-driving cars aren’t happening for years and years (and years?). “Obviously it will take time, a long time, but I think it has a lot of potential,” Brin said, yesterday.  To ensure the car’s effectiveness, Google has taken to mapping the physical world around the vehicles. It said recently that it had logged 2,000 miles of public road. There are 3.9 million miles of public road in the US. You wouldn’t bet against Google being able to do something that audacious. But the infrastructure, hardware, social and regulatory hurdles will be epic.

I’m 29. I’m sure that at some point not too deep into my lifetime, I’ll order up driving pods on my iWatch – or embedded neuro-phone – regularly 3D print my own consumer products and plug into an Oculus to unwind. There will be all of that and things that we haven’t imagined yet.

But that won’t be today or tomorrow. Yet when it’s 2017 or 2018 and things mostly looks like a slightly enhanced version of right now, it’s nothing to get mad about. No one has messed up. The future can’t be so readily predicted and analyzed... and it takes ages to get here.