The Interesting Thing About Google's Delivery Drones Is Not The Drones, But Massive Societal Shift They Envision

from the the-sharing-society dept

Alexis Madrigal, over at The Atlantic, has the big scoop story concerning Google's project to create delivery drones, in its Google X moonshot factory. The project, unimaginatively dubbed Project Wing, has many people comparing it to Amazon's similarly announced plans for delivery drones. And, of course, for years before that, we discussed ideas like the TacoCopter (and the LobsterCopter) which some people were trying to build to deliver food via drones. Google has confirmed the project (notably never using the term drone, but instead "self-flying vehicles") with this video:
Of course, as we've been noting since the TacoCopter days, the big problem here is that the FAA hates drones and insists that they are 100% illegal for any for-profit effort no matter how useful or reasonable.

While most people are comparing this to Amazon's drone delivery idea, or talking about the nature of "instant gratification," it seems like many are totally missing the much bigger thinking behind Google's effort here. Like most truly disruptive innovations, the interesting thing here isn't in just delivering packages faster, but how such a move could totally reshape society -- a vision that the team behind this at Google apparently are well aware of. From Madrigal's writeup, this key part is buried in the middle, but is the most important point. This isn't about faster delivery. This is about how faster delivery can totally change our relationship to physical things:

The idea goes like this: Because people can’t assume near-instantaneous delivery of whatever they need, they stockpile things. They might have a bunch of batteries, slowly decharging in a drawer, or a drill that they use for 10 minutes a year. Each of these things is a personal possession that sits around, embodying all this energy and industrial effort unproductively.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It is the argument—even down to the drill example—that organizations like Worldchanging made in the mid-00s for the creation of “product-service systems.” Those ideas, in turn, became key planks in the original conception of the “sharing economy,” imagined as one in which the world could make much less stuff because efficient, digital logistics would let each asset be used by more people.

“It would help move us from an ownership society to an access society. We would have more of a community feel to the things in our lives,” Teller preached. “And what if we could do that and lower the noise pollution and lower the carbon footprint, while we improve the safety of having these things come to you?”

People like to mock ideas like "the sharing economy" for putting things like homes and cars to more efficient use rather than leaving them idle all the time. But drones that can move things about easily, quickly and efficiently really could absolutely change how we think about property and ownership. Now, for those who are worried about Google, they might not like Google being at the center of this, but it's hardly likely that they'll be the only player in this space.

But this is also why the FAA's restrictions could be so damaging. The FAA, like so many government bureaucracies, has trouble viewing the future. They only view it through the prism of the past. So, drones are seen as toys that might "interfere with airplanes." The FAA is in absolutely no rush to allow commercial drone use (which is why Google's tests are all being done in Australia), because to FAA bureaucrats, what's the big deal? Drones are toys. The fact that they could reshape certain aspects of the way society works doesn't even enter the picture.

But if you're trying to understand where the future of innovation is going, dismissing projects like this as just being about toys -- or even just being about delivering things faster -- means that you're missing everything.

Filed Under: consumerism, delivery, drones, economics, google x, ownership, predictions, sharing, sharing economy
Companies: google


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  1. icon
    Whatever (profile), 29 Aug 2014 @ 7:54am

    Re: Re:

    As I mentioned, Google has had some successes in their core business areas, but most of their swing for the fence things and "innovative" ideas fail pretty solidly.

    Google swing for the fences and points to the bleachers, but rarely hits them out of the park. Even when they look to have hit a home run, it seems to be a mirage.

    For what it's worth, many in the smart phone world consider Android to be a real problem child, with way too many flavors of out of date operating systems and way too many variations and permutations. Writing software for it is a major PITA. So it's a success in some ways, but perhaps ripe to be wiped out by something better soon.

    And don't get me wrong, Google has plenty of successes as well. It's just weird to see a company with clearly huge access and the ability to influence what the entire world sees and does not being able to move forward in very many areas.

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