Google’s Next(ish) Business

Ground shipping is a huge industry that’s saddled with huge human costs, and Google is setting itself up to be able to tackle every aspect of it.

Google Maps provides turn-by-turn directions and traffic analysis. StreetView cars have to be scheduled and dispatched efficiently. Shopping Express is a fairly quiet learning exercise for how to become a delivery link in at least a few supply chains. But all of these capabilities are basic requirements for the industry, nothing special yet.

The big disruption comes on the human end. Google’s further along than anyone on self-driving cars, and the sleep-enfeebled long-haul trucking industry won’t be able to compete with an automated rig that never has to stop. Seems like the tech is almost ready, the biggest obstacle there is going to be the legal questions (more on that later).

Fedex, DHL, and UPS all employ hundreds of thousands of people, many (most?) of them warehouse workers or delivery drivers. Warehouse workers are already in the process of being replaced. Delivery drivers, on the other hand, have seemed safe. Customers want packages at their door, and the only way to provide that right now is to send a human out to drive and then, critically, walk them there.

But Google has been making some interesting purchases lately. They’re loading up on robotics companies, including the terrifyingly amazing Boston Dynamics.

Imagine this: a self-driving delivery truck loads up and heads out, parks at some optimal location, and dispatches a dozen robots who walk the packages that last twenty precious yards to a dozen people’s doors, in parallel, and then load back up, move over a block, and do it again.

This is more plausible to me than Amazon’s drone idea. Drones buzz over people’s homes and in their faces. They’re more susceptible to wind and rain. They can’t handle heavy or large items. They can’t open doors to slip packages in when you’re away. Automated trucks and grounded smartbots, on the other hand, build on existing infrastructure and would interact w/ people in more-or-less the same way that delivery drivers do now. Just way more efficiently.

So how do we get there?

First, states and cities need to make self-driving trucks legal. Some states are getting there with preliminary laws allowing limited autonomous vehicles, but full-blown automated trucking is probably a ways off; people aren’t comfortable sharing the road with self-driving anything yet, much less massive trucks.

But what if the first self-driving things were actually small, light, slow, and all-around non-threatening? Like, say, a specialized StreetView vehicle that only needed enough ‘vehicle’ to hold the StreetView rig? It seems like it should be relatively easy to get that past a legislature or two.

That’s the wedge in the door. People become acclimated to seeing driverless vehicles on the road, the allowed sizes gradually go up, and then we have trucks, first only on highways and then everywhere. No big legal questions about opening up airspace, and the seemingly fundamental questions of agency and liability for driverless vehicles gets sidestepped here because these are commercial vehicles and Google the Company is obviously the entity that has both.

Second, the technology needs to get there. Watch those Boston Dynamics videos again. On a ten-twenty year scale, I think the tech side is going to be fine.

Third, people need to be ready for it, and not just in the legal sense; I’m cynical enough to believe a powerful company like Google could make the legal issues disappear before people were actually ready to see them go. But if nobody wants to buy things that are going to get delivered by scary robots, then the whole thing falls down.

Ground shipping at first doesn’t seem like the sort of sexy tech people want to picture when they think of Google. It definitely won’t be the only thing they’re doing (if they’re capable of this, they’re going to be capable of a lot of other really cool things, too). But there’s just so much money sitting there, and so much room for improvement over an industry that’s obviously bottlenecked on its humans, that it would be crazy for Google to pass up the opportunity it’s creating for itself.