Subject: Crash testing the Google Car

By now you may already have seen this evocative video of the Google self-driving car in action. If
you haven’t, I won’t give it away, except to say that it contains a surprise
that turns a standard tech demo into a truly compelling story. In fact, this
video reinforced my feeling that, with the self-driving car initiative, Google
is playing with some very powerful story energy. My concern is that the name
“Google Car” evokes the wrong metaphor. If I’m right, it could mean that Google
might master the technology and still leave an awful lot on the table when it
comes to brand value.

 

When I first mention the idea of a self-driving car, most
people wrinkle up their noses as if they just encountered a bad smell. From a
story point of view, this is understandable. One of the overarching story
conflicts in the automotive category is safety-versus-freedom, and people seem
to conjure up very negative images of both story energies when they first try
to imagine the Google Car–as if the car is likely to be unsafe and take away my freedom at the same
time.

 

If you live with the idea of the self-driving car a little
longer, more positive images begin to surface–at least that’s what happened for
me. I began to think about the tedious, three-hour drive from Portland to
Seattle and how nice it would be to leave the driving to Google. I imagined
landing in an unfamiliar city and being able to focus on honing my presentation
while the Google rental car drives me to my meeting, taking advantage of all
available information with regard to road conditions, traffic and alternative routes
to get me to my destination quickly and effortlessly.

 

It was those images–those stories playing in my head–that
suggested the problem with the metaphor of the Google Car. Google is not using
its great technological capability to build a high-tech car; Google is harnessing massive amounts of information to create
a clockwork chauffeur.

 

The story implications of the two different metaphors are
very important for Google–the company itself, not just the car. The robot car
metaphor plays with deep-seated fears about the way innovative technology can
begin with the promise of a better life, insidiously take away hard-won freedom
and end by threatening us in ways we can’t predict. This is actually a central
theme in most stories of robots, as well as one of the key tropes of science
fiction. My partner Jim, just off the top of his head, described at least five
episodes of the original Star Trek series built on this exact struggle. A robot
car is an idea almost purpose built to trigger these fears because a car is a
large, complex and ultimately mindless machine. On the other hand, a chauffer
is a qualified, well-trained servant: discrete, knowledgeable and
unobtrusive–an expert pilot of a car.

 

Not only does the chauffer metaphor seem like a more
positive and engaging way to think about the self-driving car initiative; it
also makes lot more sense in terms of the relationship between the Google Car
and the Google master brand. Most people have no difficulty making the
connection between Google’s primary function–search–and its mission, “to organize
the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The
leap from there to building a phone is a bit puzzling, but the idea of building
a car is a real head-scratcher. On the other hand, the idea that Google might
use its talent for gathering and organizing information to construct a
technology that guides your car and serves society by facilitating safer and
more efficient transportation–that actually makes a lot of sense.

 

I’d love to know if this
distinction makes sense to you, and whether you agree. 

2 Comments

  1. Scott Walker says:

    I think you hit this one on the head.
    This is the classic difference between engineering and marketing. Engineering tells you what it is, what it’s made of and assumes that what you are supposed to do with it is self-evident. Marketing, well good marketing, tells you what the product can do for you, why it is important, and why this one is more desirable than the other one. Microsoft vs. Apple.
    On a personal note, I am completely up for a chauffeured drive to and from work each day. I like driving, but I really dislike commuting.

  2. Padmini Sharma says:

    This is a very thought-provocative post. Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t seen the Google video, but after seeing it, how can I not root for it? That said, the question of what Google stands for as a brand is puzzling. I think Google’s Brand Distinction is or should be ‘Changing the way people navigate the world’. This is focused enough to account for how it changed the way we navigate information, but broad enough to include other navigational changes such as technological devices and automotives.
    Google’s story conflict seems to be about Freedom vs. control. The more freedom we get from Google’s services, the less in control we are (Google knows what searches I do and I have no way of controlling it.) Interestingly, in the case of the auto-car, by making it an offering for people who don’t HAVE a sense of control to begin with, Google is actually tapping into that conflict in a very interesting way.

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