Why Silicon Valley And Detroit Hate Each Other

Anyone who follows vehicle automation might have noticed a slight difference in the way tech companies like Google and the auto industry promote their products. Google will take something that’s still in development, release a highly misleading vehicle of a blind guy “driving” it, then talk about how the car is safer than humans based not on crash records but on acceleration profiles.

We’re not sure which of those two things ratpag hated more. On one hand we had to explain to random people how the blind guy video was conceptual and somewhat illegal, and as Bryant Walker Smith has pointed out it creates unreasonable expectation among consumers that diminishes the ability to regulate the product. On the other hand, the smoothness = safety claim is bad science. Here’s the quote:

“We’re spending less time in near-collision states,” said Urmson. “Our car is driving more smoothly and more safely than our trained professional drivers.”

Kind of like when it smoothly came to a stop in front of two traffic cones because it was confused by their presence, or when it smoothly failed to stop for a truck in the demo just this Summer.

“It detected the cones and it tried to go around them, but it wasn’t confident,” says Dmitri Dolgov, typing at the laptop. “The car is capable of a lot of things, but unless it’s absolutely sure that it can handle some situation well, it will err on the conservative side.”

If  you ask ratpag, stopping in the middle of the road isn’t conservative—it’s straight up bad ass. But we’re glad it erred on the side of caution. Those cones could have been people. They could have been guests at a wedding!

The auto industry is a bit more risk averse in their marketing. If they claim that something improves safety, they carry more risk of liability as a customer will have a greater expectation of what a product can deliver. More importantly, the automakers have lots of experience with tort liability, something Google is just wrapping their heads around. A couple $1.2 billion settlements would have you thinking about liability, too.

This divide was finally documented in Reuter’s coverage of 2012 meetings between Google and the auto industry, based mostly on comments from confidential sources. It demonstrates what happens when two industries with wildly different cultures collide. Let ratpag pull out some choice quotes.

In one meeting, both sides were enthusiastic about the futuristic technology, yet it soon became clear that they would not be working together. The Internet search company and the automaker disagreed on almost every point, from car capabilities and time needed to get it to market to extent of collaboration.

It was as if the two were “talking a different language,” recalls one person who was present.

Uh-oh, trouble in paradise! Auto industry reps felt dissed:

“There was a certain amount of arrogance on the Google side, in the sense of ‘We know what we’re doing, you just help us,'” said a second person, representing a major car maker, who was involved in discussions with Google.

The issue of maps came up. There are a few theories about why Google is into vehicle automation at all, from inducing demand for better nationwide wireless a la Google Fiber, or actually out of the goodness of their hearts they want to make the world a better place.

shaq

A third theory is that they want to license the incredibly high-resolution map data they’ve been collecting for years through Streetview cars. They’ve got laser scanners on them for a reason. Automakers weren’t comfortable with this.

“The question is who owns the data,” he said. “You need to have frequent map updates and your car can only go where you have really accurate map data.”

They didn’t really clash until they discussed liability. It wasn’t really a clash, though; more like they spoke different languages.

Google’s assurances to one car maker that it would take responsibility for accidents due to its technology, and that the data collected by the cars makes it easy to pinpoint fault, was dismissed, according to the first person involved in the 2012 discussions.

“I just couldn’t believe my ears and was like ‘Wow you live in a bubble,'” the person said. “Car makers never get to decide who is at fault. It’s the lawyers, the judge and the jury.”

The biggest divide between Google and automakers, in ratpag’s opinion, is not hardware vs. software but their views on liability. The auto industry is risk averse and will often assume worst case scenarios with new technology. This can be good, as they rarely release dangerous products. It can also be bad, like the way they were slow to install seat belts and air bags.

Google is very much the opposite. They promote technologies that are still in development, and in such a way that suggests that the tech is further along than it is. By suggesting that the technology is safer than it is opens them up to lawsuits, but they don’t seem concerned. This is mind-blowing to the auto industry.

Tech culture has never had the experience of huge jury awards like Toyota has, so tort liability is not part of their culture. This is a risky position to take. They’re not always just cones.

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