Analysis: Watch out for the robot car!

May 29, 2014 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
In the European automotive industry Google's activities with robot cars have been watched with a certain nervousness. Now the pictures of a cuddly two-seater have gone around the world: Apparently a humble vehicle containing just the minimum of what is required to make it move at all. Certainly, nobody expected the Google car to compete against the mechatronic masterpieces from Munich, Stuttgart and Ingolstadt, but in terms of automotive technology this is below expectations. This first sight impression however should by no means be a reason to underestimate neither Google's engineering capabilities neither its appetite for a larger piece of the market cake.

The Google car, as presented, targets a small segment of the mobility market: Short-distance commuting, taxi services in cities and similar services. No high speed, driving range probably not more than what is needed to drive up and down in the city for a day, though Google did not lose any word about this aspect. And it does not even have a steering wheel or pedals. It does not look like it is going to compete with the full-fledged cars most of us have in their garages. No competitor, thus, for the existing automotive industry?

The fact is that with its robot vehicle, Google opens the perspective to a new type of mobility: It takes the steering wheel out of our hands - in exchange for time. The time we spend on the search for a free parking space, or commuting in traffic stalls is wasted time. The average German spends fifty hours per year in traffic congestions, incapable of doing something useful because he is obliged to steer this vehicle and keep his hands at the wheel. Autonomous driving can free up this time for doing something more agreeable or useful, at least to some extend.

Another aspect is that the Google car apparently does not target a clientele that would scrap their conventional car for the Google vehicle. It looks more like Google rather targets an additional market of service providers - providers whose 'product' is mobility.

Though at the first sight it looks like taxi drivers should fear the Google car more than the traditional automotive industry, it reflects a customer trend that is highly relevant for the automotive industry as a whole: Among the younger generation, the ownership of a car has lost significance. This translates into lower interest in buying a car - instead, usage models like car sharing are booming. This trend already affects the strategy of traditional carmakers. At public appearances on trade