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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. 

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