Google's Attempt To Make A Self-Driving Car: Big Idea Or Bad Idea?

Google is getting into the automobile business. Since the industry is littered with failed upstarts and revolutionary ideas, NPR's Sonari Glinton asks: Why would anyone want to do that?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Google is getting into the car business - the self-driving car business, that is. Google is throwing away the steering wheel in the pedals, building prototypes of a cozy two-seater designed for city driving.

But before the company can deliver a car that will transport city-dwellers, it has to overcome technological and legal hurdles. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports one of the biggest hurdles may be the car business itself.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Since it was first imagined, innovative thinkers have been reimagining the automobile. Chris Urmson is the latest. He's one of the lead developers at Google. For the last year or so, he's been rethinking the automobile from the ground up.

CHRIS URMSON: We're building these vehicles because we want to really understand what it means to have a self-driving vehicle. There's kind of basic things that are in a car, right? So the steering wheel, you know, if you can get in a vehicle and say, I want to go to grandma's house, why do you need a steering wheel there, right? It's just superfluous.

GLINTON: The Google car sort of looks like an old-school Volkswagen Beetle and a smart car mushed together. There's no steering wheel, there's no windshield wipers for you. The eye of the car that's on top, it gets those. Ursom says one of the reasons Google wanted to build the car is because, well, they can get the software right, but can they get building a car right, and can they convince people to use the things?

URMSON: You know, we do think people, you know, will be worried. And that's one of the reasons why we think so hard and, you know, we talk so much about safety - right? - is that, you know, we need to make sure that when this technology comes out, that it's done right and that people, you know, can feel safe and comfortable around it.

GLINTON: Google wants to revolutionize the car business. The business model, if they can get it going, wouldn't be as a traditional automaker. It'd be more like a service they'd sell to cities - think cabs or Uber. But the business graveyard is littered with automakers who wanted to change the car business. And their memories live on in film, like Preston Tucker.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM")

JEFF BRIDGES: ...Crackpot who comes up with some crazy idea that everybody laughs at that later turns out to revolutionize the world. He's squashed.

GLINTON: Or John DeLorean.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

MICHAEL J FOX: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Doc, are you telling me that you built a time machine out of a DeLorean?

GLINTON: I have been waiting four years to use that "Back To The Future" clip in a story - so good.

Anyway, Matt Anderson is the curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. He says there are hundreds of car companies that have bitten the dust in the last century or so.

MATT ANDERSON: It's a great question - what kind of person or company decides to start a car business? And, you know, I think in some respects, there's certainly some ego involved.

GLINTON: Anderson says that's because, in essence, it's a terrible business to get into, even for the experts. But he says if Google can conquer some basic problems, it could make it.

ANDERSON: A unique product - something that no one else is offering. It certainly takes financing. You've got to have the money in place. You've got to have the marketing. You have to establish yourself and an identity for your vehicle, a brand. You have to have good timing. And I think it takes a really strong stomach. You have to be willing to lose a lot of money.

JACK NERAD: Well, Google certainly can bring a lot of money to the party.

GLINTON: Jack Nerad is with Kelley Blue Book. He says the auto business is the kind of place that innovative thinkers want to go into. But he says, it's really complicated. And you've got all these competitors with a century-plus of experience waiting to eat your lunch. Plus, the money thing is not small.

NERAD: You need cubic money. You need cubic, cubic money to be in the car business. It is so heavily capital intensive that it's almost hard to imagine how much money you need. I mean, you know, starting some kind of Internet firm in a garage is way different than starting a car company in a garage. It just - it doesn't work the same way.

GLINTON: If there's one thing Google has, it's money. How much it's willing to burn, that's another story. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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