Googles Tentacles Reach Into American Cities

By Andrej Mrevlje |

For the last decade, smartphones dominated the market in our society.They replaced what we all thought was irreplaceable: cars. Because of their size and their constantly advancing technology and value, cars were not only an indicator of industrial progress, they were our second home, a property, a family member. But when change arrived, it was swift and incredible. It happened overnight: the advertising industry dumped cars and replaced them first with much smaller cell phones, then with smartphones. Do you remember how many cars you have owned in your life? I do. But I am having a really hard time remembering how many smartphones I’ve had since 2009, when I bought my first one. Smartphones conquered the world, changing our lifestyle and the way we spend our money. All this happened before we even realized just how big and how serious Apple, Google and Samsung were that they weren’t just part of the entertainment industry.

And now that those little gadgets are in everyone’s hands, no matter what we are doing now that the markets, as we used to say, are saturated cars are coming back. It will take some time, but what we are starting to see is that Google is setting its hands on American cities. In a similar way to the Italian dopoguerra (post-war period), when the Italian state rewarded Fiat with the construction of highways after the company’s contribution to the war effort during WWII. With the Autostrada del Sole, which connected Italy from north to south, the Italy’s biggest car industry got a substantial boost, selling more and more cars.

For Google, American cities will be their new highways. In order to finalize their self-driving car, Google needs to build infrastructure that will enable their future autonomous vehicles to replace old-fashioned taxis and Ubers with the new technology of mass transport. As the Verge reported recently:

Sidewalk Labs, the “smart city” company spun off from Google last year, unveiled a new tool Thursdays it built to help cities better manage traffic congestion, parking problems, and ultimately prepare themselves for the expected onslaught of self-driving cars. Flow is described as a “transportation platform” that uses aggregated, anonymous traffic data to help city managers identify bottlenecks or redirect trains and buses to transit-starved neighborhoods, as well as drivers get real-time parking information during their commutes.

If that sounds a little abstract, it’s because Flow has yet to be tested in a real-life setting. That will change later this year, when the US Department of Transportation announces the winner of its Smart City contest, in which dozens of medium-sized cities were competing for $40 million in federal funds to pull their transportation infrastructure out of the Dark Ages. Last week, DOT unveiled the seven finalists at South By Southwest: Austin, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Columbus, Kansas City, and Portland. Each was given $100,000 by the agency to better develop their ideas, and the winner will be announced in June.

Is Obama’s government entrusting American cities to Google in order to transform them into a testing ground for the self-driving vehicle? Is this a reward for the help that the internet giant gave to the government when the country was sinking into crisis after the 2008 financial market crash? Nobody can tell, but the bonding between Google and the White House has pretty deep roots. Eric Schmidt, a former Google CEO and the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., was a campaign advisor and a major donor to Barack Obama. He also served on Google’s government relations team. After Obama won in 2008, Schmidt became a member of President Obama’s transition advisory board. Schmidt is still a frequent visitor to the White House, and he recently visited Cuba just a few hours before Obama landed in Havana.

However, the announcement of Flow comes just a few days after Chris Urmson, director of self-driving cars under Google X, called for federal laws that will set regulations for autonomous vehicles and allow them to hit the roads.

As Andrew Ng, chief scientists at Baidu often referred to as the Chinese version of Google wrote in Wired, in order to put driverless cars on the road, it is necessary to make, “modest changes to our infrastructure.” Ng discussed how cities can adapt to allow driverless cars operate safely in cities, like having construction workers guide traffic using wireless apps instead of hand signals, so that driverless cars learn how to behave via electronic signals. Baidu plans to put its first autonomous vehicle the road in 2018.

Google is not loosing any time, either. While waiting to hear which city they will test in, Sidewalk has been very active in New York. Here, Sidewalk is developing a product that it’s calling the “completely connected streets” platform, which would collect ground data from streets and sidewalks to inform decisions about things like parking, lane-changing and traffic enforcement.

“That combination of tech knowledge with urban government experience will be the key to our success,” says Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk’s CEO.

“Dealing with cities is a unique beast, so we’re building a hybrid team that combines technology expertise with experience with cities, to offer solutions that are sensitive to the unique urban environment,” Doctoroff told Business Insider in February.

But Doctoroff changed his mind a few days ago, when he said that “building a new city could be ‘a laboratory to experiment’ with solutions to cybersecurity and privacy issues. That rhetoric aligns with the thoughts of Alphabet CEO Larry Page who mused a couple years back about setting aside part of the world to test different experiments outside the bounds of law or regulation.

“Cities are hard,” Doctoroff concluded. “You have people with vested interest, politics, physical space… But the technology ultimately cannot be stopped.”

I love technology, but the picture Doctoroff paints for my future life in New York is just a step away from the imagery of Soylent Green, a movie I remember well from my early my youth.

Also published on Medium.

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