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Google Moves to Reinvent Transportation

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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. [digg=]

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

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26 Responses to “Google Moves to Reinvent Transportation”

  1. Most of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels so is an electric car anymore environmentally correct or even worth investing in at this time?! Maybe Google should invest in new ways to harvest solar, wind, tidal, or geothermal energies (which have a broader market) before investing in a car that essentially still uses fossil fuels.

  2. Ian D. Miller

    Page didn’t load fully the first time so only caught part of the article. I see now there actually IS direct funding to Aptera. My bad. Hope this makes Aptera’s launch date of late this year feasible.

  3. Ian D. Miller

    Why not a link to Aptera? Very awkward mention of them in the article, proposing they’re somehow connected to Google. Aptera vehicles are worth a lot of attention on their own merits and have no real connection to Google. They have two models, one of which will be a plug in hybrid (the other is all electric) but they don’t receive any funding from Google. This article makes a tenuous connection between the two which is a bit misleading.

  4. smiles

    With Electric Engineering being one of my qualifications I have to agree that solar power alone is not going to be very helpful at all. But, as it is possible to produce fossil fuels from many materials, it is also possible to harvest environmentally friendly energy in different ways to power these electric vehicles. The industry is structuring a way to make these “user friendly” and that is what part of the funds are for. Ever hear the myth that you can fry an egg with the energy contained in one hand? Well it’s no myth. In fact, I was a skeptic myself until one of my partners proved “sci-fi” ways of powering a vehicle. Don’t believe everything you hear about what is and what’s not. But don’t shoot it down just yet either, you might miss out on a boom in the auto industry. Keep smiling

  5. My cynical take — these guys don’t have a clue about the auto industry, and are going to waste a lot of money. It’s a very different business from Silicon Valley (a car isn’t like a cell phone), and there are many gotchas (for example, it isn’t easy to build a plug-in hybrid that lasts a long time and uses NiMH batteries, due to quirks in the battery behavior)

  6. The solution I think Google needs is to make the grid smarter and profitable for the utility and individuals of each home who would invest $20K in Solar power equipment on top of their houses. First allow individual make a return (profit) by selling power at premium to the City Grid at prime time and maybe to the plug-in car users to, than Google would have a new monopoly everyone would desire. Google already uses this formula for Adsword why not use this business model for the grid, where they can distribute power and profits efficiently from users to individuals. Now this could be a solution to get of fossil.

  7. Alex. You have a lot of learning to do. That is a nice fantasy.

    I encourage you to study Electrical Engineering sometime. Solar is not even close to being able to provide the amount power a production or car in the sense its known today, or pictured in the story would need to run.

  8. Stuff like this is why google still has a warm place in my heart.

    Food for thought: Find an attractive way to integrate solar panels into 100% electric vehicles (probably roof, maybe hood, possibly an evolution of the solar windows recently developed).

    Plug in re-charges, then tops off from the grid. Once at 100% charge, each car then becomes a solar panel pushing juice back into the grid to offset costs. Suddenly you have hundreds of thousands of active solar panels across the nation.

  9. We have a ready solution, with our concept of plug-in-electric station.

    It is to distribute electric power, to electric or hybrid cars, all with a station consisting of an 110V plug-in just outside ones house, in the parking lots of café or other establishments frequented by people. HouseDNA has built up first plug-in-station business platform. This can calculate the amount the electricity supplier is entitled to receive from the customer. This is based on the size of the car, and service time. The small payment transactions can be done through our secure website. All one needs is to have our website homepage. In terms of travel cost it is just equivalent to 40 cents a gallon. The spread of plug-in-electric stations will induce people to go for electric or partially electric (hybrid) cars. Besides it is environment friendly.

    The call of the day is to look for alternate and cheaper energy supply source. One day our success will make people look toward to other cheaper sources of energy for their cars.