The New York Times recently covered a story about Internet company Google testing autonomous cars that have been driving themselves around San Francisco. These test cars, comprised of seven Toyota Prius’ and an Audi TT, have all equipped with sensors that attach to the roof and wheels and allow the cars to drive unaided by humans, though there are humans in the car during the test for legal and safety reasons. The article focuses on the technology aspects mostly, how the car works and where it traversed. It was a great article and it’s a really amazing concept. Then I came across this idea from Nathan Williams, a designer who works over at Wolff Olins, who tweeted:
Google’s mission = ‘organise the worlds info’… if you think about it, drone cars make perfect sense. Bots collecting data. Simple.
And suddenly it became clear what Google could be working toward.
Imagine you make a technology that allows cars all over the world to be driven autonomously. There are a huge number of benefits to people and society at large. Less accidents, more freedom to interact with people in the car or just so you can text or watch a movie. But what does Google gain from this? Well, you have to input an address into the system so the car can drive you to your location. It can tell which grocery store you shop at, which gym you visit, what kind of school your kids go to. It knows what time of day you’re travelling, if you make a morning and evening commute or if you zip around town at all times of the day. What would Google do with this information? They’d sell ads based around the data. It’s your real life and your digital life merging together.
I’m not trying to sound Orwell-ian here, though the idea can sound a bit scary. There are a lot of devices that capture your real life and combine it with your digital presence, think Last.fm or Foursqaure. But this would be one of the largest companies in the world who already knows so much about you getting even more information getting even more precise data. I came across this article by IDEO though titled Why Would You Trade Away Your Online Privacy? which spoke exactly about the tradeoffs of privacy. It’s a great read and it honestly answers a lot of concerns one might have against losing privacy… you know, so long as Google doesn’t turn evil.
Update: The Associated Press has their own take on it but seems to think the cars would have cameras attached, taking photos along your route to flesh out Google Maps. While it’s an interesting idea I think it misses the real point which is tracking behavior in the real world.