If you pop on over to the Amazon Best Sellers list this graduation season, you’ll see a phenomenon as predictable as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, the last book written by Dr. Seuss, is making its annual pilgrimage to the top of the charts. Released in 1990, the book has become a favorite grad gift the world around, thanks to its message that the future is a bright and wondrous world of possibilities.
Being a bit of a skeptic who probably listened to far too much Nine Inch Nails back in the day, I’m usually prone to roll my eyes at such saccharine stories. However: (a) Seussian rhyme schemes have been clinically proven to diffuse even the most hardened skeptic (see: The Grinch), and (b) I just saw the future and it is AMAZING.
Okay, I didn’t see the entire future—just a slice, thanks to the good folks at Wired Magazine and their annual Disruptive by Design Business Conference. One of their many incredible speakers was Sebastian Thrun, the computer scientist and Stanford professor who heads up Google’s idea lab, Google X. Sebastian spoke of robots, Google Glasses, and the future of education, but what really caught my attention was this video he shared that showcases Google’s self-driving car project. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it—I won’t spoil the twist—and kudos to the videographer who could make folks tear-up over the prospect of a self-driving car.
While this wasn’t the first I’d heard of Google’s self-driving car project, it was the first time the light bulb went off in my head as to its broader implications for the travel industry. According to the Auto Rental News 2012 Fact Book, there were nearly 1.8 million rental cars in operation in the United States in 2011. That’s a whole lot of folks navigating unfamiliar terrain in hopes of making their business meetings on time or their vacations run smoothly.
Now imagine if those folks, to borrow a phrase, left the driving to Google. With hands off the steering wheel, the driver becomes a passenger who can enjoy the ride. And with no GPS to misinterpret or maps to wrestle with, it is quite conceivable that Google car renters will embrace them as a sort of private tour vehicle.
Afraid of reverting to the left-side of the road when traveling in England? No worries, mate! Your Google car will know right from left when it matters. Want to drive through your ancestral homeland even though you don’t speak the language? No problem—your Google rental car will know every language and all the local rules of the road. Bored of the scenery—just enjoy the vast selection of “in-drive” movies from YouTube (for a nominal fee, of course).
At the end of your day’s journey, of course, your Google rental car will also draw upon Google Local, Maps, and Zagat to recommend all manner of shopping, dining, and tourist recommendations at the push of a button. Indeed, a Google rental car isn’t just a chauffeur, it’s a concierge that makes the entire world around you searchable and infinitely more accessible—and advertisers will be lining up to win the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of every Google car passenger just as they do for every online Google search user.
Last, but not least, think of all the movie characters a Google rental car could save! Judging by the trailer for “Chernobyl Diaries,” at least six American 20-somethings could have been saved if only they’d rented a reliable Google Car with clear instructions to avoid nuclear zombie zones. Heck, AMC could wrap-up “The Walking Dead” tomorrow with Google’s technology leading Sheriff Hank and company to safety.
GOOGLE CAR: Where would you like to go today, Sheriff Hank?
SHERIFF HANK: To a place without zombies, Google car.
GOOGLE CAR: I thought you’d never ask.
All kidding aside, the future is bright for Google’s self-driving cars. Nevada just became the first state to license them for testing state-wide, and others are considering similar legislation. The implications for the rental car industry—if not the travel industry as a whole—are awe-inspiring. What revenue streams emerge if drivers don’t have to drive? What streams disappear? What new marketing opportunities will evolve? Will long-standing industries need to partner with Google or others to thrive? To survive?
While these questions may seem premature, they are born from the new reality that change is today’s primary business constant. Having witnessed entire industries and long-standing brands uprooted by the past decade of technological innovation (see classified ads, Tower Records, Circuit City, and Borders), those in the travel industry would be wise not to bet against the Google car.
Or to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “Will Google car succeed? Yes, it will indeed. (98¾% guaranteed.)”
Oh, the places we’ll go.