Innovation lessons from Google’s self-driving car

google driverless car

A few days ago Google showed off their very own self-driving car. But unlike their first prototypes, which were custom rigged SUV’s and cars from known manufacturers, it isn’t built around a driver behind the wheel. Rather, it’s built around safety; without any driver.

Chris Urmson, Director of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project said:

“They won’t have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or brake pedal because they don’t need them. Our software and sensors do all the work.

The vehicles will be very basic — we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible — but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that’s an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.”

Google completely removed common driver-led features we all use in our non self-driving cars: steering wheel, accelerator pedal, radio and brakes.

Also, it looks cute, the windshield is flexible and the bumper is made out of foam. The sensors are more powerful than before, able to see up to two football fields ahead. And the controls are redundant, with a backup motor and brakes that can take over if anything goes wrong. Oh, and the top speed is a cool 25 mph!

Though they started by adapting existing cars with driverless capabilities, their real goal was to build a self-driving car. And at this point Google’s self-driving car is not an innovation, rather an invention that can hold tremendous potential for the future.

Still, there are some innovation lessons we can discern from their efforts…

Idealistic vision

In Google’s own language, this is a moonshot project. It’s something that will make a dent in the future, that is worth pursuing though it might not work. In the end, the results could be dramatic:

In fact, it’s hard to imagine how this jaw-dropping technology won’t have a positive impact on all forms of transportation. With an estimated 30,000 automotive-related deaths a year, we only stand to benefit from making cars safer in every regard, and since nearly 90 percent of accidents happen because of human error, adding a little bit of well-tested autonomy into the equation can only help. That same technology will also enable us to be more efficient with how our vehicles consume energy, and how much space we take up on the road. Just picture that highway scene in Minority Report to get an idea for how traffic jams won’t exist in a future powered by self-driving cars.

 Meanwhile, public transit is a mess, but it’s a mess that self-driving cars can help clean up, since autonomous technology for cars can inevitably also improve how buses and trains work. It’s not hard to imagine a future where self-driving cars are a form of personalized public transportation. Or where traffic moves so much more efficiently that buses and carpools no longer feel like a strain.

For Google, it’s all about being transformative.

What are you changing and how will the world look like after you change it?

Shift the frame

A friend of mine sent me the following video because it ends with a great innovation lesson. In the video, a couple is taking a tour of an architectural firm’s lobby lead by one of the firm’s architects who is confidently showing off  their previous work. But, when they finally take a seat the architect’s office, he asks them “what can we do for you?” he gets an unconventional request:

Did you get it?

A provocative question that leads to a blank slate approach. Something these architects had never considered.

Google might not have asked a provocative question, but they definitely followed the same principle: shift the frame to see beyond the obvious.

If Google had wanted to build an electric vehicle, they’d taken a cue from Tesla. If they’d wanted to build a driverless car with all the known features of a car, they could’ve opted to sell their software to existing car manufacturers.

Instead, they probably asked themselves: How might we build a self-driving car for safety and who are the people we can impact the most with that solution?

Start small

Google aims to take Disney’s People Mover idea and make it real.

Though Google aims to be transformative in everything it does, there is talk that they’ve taken a step back with this strategy. Frankly, Google is smart enough to understand that people won’t jump out of their seats with excitement, put their keys down and let a computer drive them everywhere. Self-driving cars in general have a long road ahead of them. They face myriad challenges not only technical and legal but also social and psychological.

Taking these challenges into account, they shifted and decided to start small. First, they started by testing it with their own employees for about a year. The next step is to use them in and around San Francisco for very specific functions.

The driving question here is: Where can we make the most initial impact in the least amount of time?

Discover the business model with the long view in mind

The journey of innovation is a roller coaster. Unlike incremental ideas, really big ideas have no clear business case; only potential. And you have to find that potential in a very disciplined way. This is the case for Google’s self-driving car because they don’t really know what they’re going to do with it down the line; these are just prototypes that have flaws.

What is certain to is self-driving cars will continue to improve in a way that will only make our lives better in the future. It will be a while before Google finds a viable business model for their self-driving cars, but Google takes the long view on moonshot initiative.

Bottom line: Innovation requires a different kind of leadership. One that understands that innovation requires trial and error. The rhetoric of innovation is often about fun and creativity, but the reality is that innovation is hard work and can be a very taxing, uncomfortable process, both emotionally and intellectually. We can learn valuable innovation lessons from Google, a true innovator, on what it takes to create the conditions for projects like these to happen and become real.

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