Google Moves to Reinvent Transportation

On a sunny afternoon back in June of 2007, members of the media, academia and the tech industry gathered to watch Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin drive a white Prius around the parking lot of the search giant’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

It wasn’t just a slow news day — the Prius had been converted into a plug-in vehicle, and Page and Brin had gotten behind the wheel in order to announce the company’s RechargeIT initiative, which included, among other things, $10 million to back plug-in vehicle technology.

It’s been a year since that awkward scene, and the motivation behind Google’s foray into transportation has only recently started to become clear. Google just named the first two recipients of funds from its plug-in vehicle program: lithium-ion battery maker ActaCell and electric vehicle maker Aptera Motors.

While Google commonly makes small investments in web and mobile startups and has started backing renewable energy companies as well, this was the first time it has funded companies focused on electric vehicles. With the move, Google has gone from advocating plug-in vehicle technology to investing in it, much the way a venture capitalist would.

The investments themselves shed some light onto the value that Google sees in electric vehicles. As a massive power user, the company has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars toward helping remake the energy industry, investing in solar and wind technology and in making its data centers more energy efficient. Since plug-in vehicles can help utilities stabilize energy delivery, lithium-ion battery technology like ActaCell’s and plug-in vehicles like Aptera’s Typ-1 are essentially an extension of Google’s energy investments as they could provide important energy storage capability to the power grid.

Google is also betting that the future of transportation will be networked and controlled via software, just like our laptops and gadgets. And not just connected via the Internet, but through the network of the power grid, too. Rolf Schreiber, an engineer with RechargeIT, says that beyond these initial investments, Google is also looking to back companies that build software that can control the rate at which plug-in vehicles charge.

And much the way Google has built a business of providing information via the web, the company could add its broadband expertise to the future of connected transportation. Schreiber, for example, recently completed a test of Google’s own, in-house plug-in vehicles using wireless communications and GPS to determine that the cars are getting more than 93 miles per gallon.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Google’s investment in transportation so far is paltry compared to what it’s spending on other industries. But while we’re not predicting that Google will make a G-car any time soon, its efforts to push plug-in vehicles as a way to build out a smarter power grid, and to bring some of the intelligence of information technology to transportation, will be worth watching.

photo courtesy PG&E

This was originally published on BusinessWeek.com.

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