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商业 - 汽车

谷歌会成为汽车霸主吗?

Alex Taylor III 2011年05月26日

笨拙守旧的汽车业一向对硅谷企业家们有着特殊的诱惑。

    谷歌公司(Google)神秘的研发项目——无人驾驶汽车本月早些时候露出了一点风声。据报道,谷歌正在悄悄地游说美国内华达州的立法机构,希望通过相关法律,使内华达成为第一个立法允许无人驾驶汽车在公共道路上行驶的州。

    这条新闻的确令人心动不已,不过它并不能让人外界明白谷歌公司的意图。说得更坦率些:谷歌究竟在做什么?是不是它的天才工程师们在发明一些稀奇的玩意儿,好给工作找点乐子?就像日本本田公司的工程师们也“忙里偷闲”地研发了一款仿人机器人“阿西莫”(Asimo)。拟或谷歌是想把它在数码方面的优势扩展到汽车领域,成为汽车业的一个供应商、合作伙伴,甚至是原始设备制造商?

    当问到谷歌对汽车业务的意图时,一位谷歌发言人果不其然地含糊其辞:“就目前看来,团队的重点主要放在项目研究方面,”他说:“我认为在将来的某个时候,我们也许有机会与汽车业进行对话或合作,不过现在谈这些还为时过早。”

    谷歌汽车会成为下一个通用汽车(GM)吗?很有可能。笨拙守旧的汽车业一向对硅谷企业家们有着特殊的诱惑。在上一次互联网泡沫期间,地球连线(Earthlink)的创始人斯凯•戴顿就进行了这方面的探索,试图建立一个虚拟的、按单定制的汽车生产公司,他为这家公司起名为Flint Inc.。最近更加成功的案例是贝宝(PayPal)的创始人马一龙(Elon Musk),他向特斯拉汽车公司(Tesla Motors)投资了数百万美元,后者专门生产电动汽车。

    而通过研发无人驾驶汽车,谷歌正在开拓一个已经让许多汽车工程师心驰神往几十年的领域。就连像通用汽车公司前副总裁鲍勃•鲁茨这样铁杆的驾驶发烧友都坦承,无人驾驶汽车是未来的发展方向。自动驾驶的汽车可以减轻高速公路拥挤,减少交通事故,使燃油经济性得到最大化,并且为驾驶员空出时间,让他们腾出手来去做别的事。

    人们担心自动驾驶汽车如果发生车祸,责任问题可能难以认定。不过这种担心可能是被过度渲染了。另外自适应巡航系统已经成功地应用了好几年,当该系统感知到车辆碰撞时,它就会自动进行制动。

    几十年来,无人驾驶汽车一直是大家热衷幻想的话题。早在1939年的纽约世博会上,通用汽车公司就在它的“未来奇观”(Futurama)展馆里展出了一台无人驾驶电动汽车,它通过镶嵌在道路里的电路提供电力,用无线电进行控制。另外从80年代起,美国国防先进技术研究计划署 (DARPA)就开始支持自动驾驶汽车的研究,还赞助了一个无人驾驶车辆的竞赛,称作“无人驾驶机器人挑战赛”(DARPA Grand Challenge)。小规模无人驾驶汽车试验已经进行了有些时日了。例如1997年,几辆无人驾驶的别克(Buick)汽车在道路里嵌入的磁铁的引导下,在圣地亚哥附近的自动高速公路上行驶了7英里左右。这个项目由加州州政府机构提供了部分赞助。

    汽车制造对于谷歌来说,似乎只是个不必要的消遣。现在围绕着谷歌的争论有很多,比如关于版权法的执行、劣质药品广告,以及其搜索内容在中国的审查等,因此谷歌现在正忙得不可开交。不过随着重点业务Android系统站稳脚跟,加上谷歌在网络搜索领域的地位很大程度上已经得到了开发,现在谷歌也在寻求新的开拓领域。美国每年会卖出1500万辆新车,全球每年会卖出6000万辆新车,因此无人驾驶汽车的潜在市场是极为巨大的。

    如谷歌自己所解释的那样,谷歌最近出品的无人驾驶汽车使用了摄像机、雷达探测器和激光测距仪来“看”前后左右的交通情况,并通过详细的地图来指引汽车在路上行驶。谷歌的优势在于它的数据中心,它可以处理汽车在测定路况时产生的海量信息。

    谷歌谦虚地表示,它可能已经实现了“机器人研究的第一步”。不过如果谷歌做出的声明都是真的,那么谷歌实际上已经实现了几十年一遇的飞跃。谷歌的无人驾驶汽车已经从加州北部的山景城(Mountain View)驶到了南加州的好莱坞林荫大道和太平洋海岸高速公路,跨过金门大桥,驶过太平洋海岸高速公路,环绕了太浩湖(Lake Tahoe)。总之,谷歌的7辆无人驾驶汽车已经行驶了超过14万英里——期间应该没有发生任何事故。

    如果谷歌可以研发一款商业上可行的汽车产品,那么它在汽车业的前景将会怎样?

    也许谷歌不会变成一家汽车生产商。因为这需要太多的资本,而回报太少。

    也许谷歌也不会变成一家零部件供应商。谷歌是靠卖概念赚大钱的,而不是靠卖东西。

    谷歌可能也不会与某家全线厂商进行合作。谷歌为什么要把自己吊死在一棵树上呢?

    谷歌会不会成为专有软件的独家提供商?对!谷歌的自动驾驶系统将来很有可能成为世界上所有自动驾驶汽车的运行标准,它的这套系统就好比是汽车里的Windows系统。那么谷歌为什么不这么做呢?谷歌有能力,有信心,也有资源。谷歌在银行里存着360亿美元的现金,而且每天还有越来越多的钱进账,很难想象有比这更好的投资了——投资于自动驾驶系统,无论对于谷歌自身,还是对于个人交通的未来,都是一笔极为划算的投资。

    谷歌在这个项目的首席研究人员塞巴斯蒂安•杜伦说道:“拉里•佩奇和谢尔盖•布林之所以创立了谷歌,是因为他们想利用科技解决重大的问题。而我们今天正在钻研的一个重大问题就是汽车的安全性和效率。我们的目标是要从根本上改变汽车的使用方式,减少交通事故,为人们腾出时间,减少碳排放。”

    亨利•福特先生(福特汽车公司的创始人,美国汽车之父——译注),您老可以为拉里•佩奇和谢尔盖•布林让让位子了。

    译者:朴成奎

    The mystery shrouding Google's development of the driverless car slipped a bit earlier this month. Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), it was reported, is quietly lobbying the state of Nevada for legislation that would make it the first state where cars could be legally operated on public roads without someone's hand on the steering wheel

    While the revelation was tantalizing, it did little to illuminate the company's intentions. Or, to put it more bluntly, what is Google up to? Are its enormously capable engineers off on some job-enrichment lark, like the engineers at Honda (HMC) developing the humanoid robot Asimo? Or does Google plan to extend its digital mastery into the automotive industry as a supplier, partner, or original equipment manufacturer?

    When asked to clarify the company's intentions about the car business, a Google spokesman was, not surprisingly, opaque. "As it stands, the focus of the team is truly on the research aspects of the project," he said. "I anticipate that there may be an opportunity to discuss any future conversations or cooperation with the auto industry down the road sometime, but it would be premature to have those kinds of conversations today."

    Could Google Motors become the next GM (GM, Fortune 500)? It's more likely than you'd think. The lumbering, Luddite world of automobiles has a special attraction for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Back during the last Internet bubble, Sky Dayton, founder of Earthlink, took some exploratory steps toward forming a virtual, build-to-order car manufacturer he called Flint Inc. More recently, and more successfully, Elon Musk invested some of the millions he made from starting PayPal in Tesla Motors, a maker of battery-powered cars.

    By investigating driverless cars, Google is exploring an area that has tantalized automotive engineers for decades. Even a devoted driving enthusiast like former General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz concedes that driverless cars are the way of the future. Autonomous cars would reduce highway congestion, cut down on accidents, maximize fuel economy, and free up time for drivers to perform other tasks.

    Worries about liability in the case of accidents are likely overblown; adaptive cruise control that automatically applies the brakes when it senses a collision has been used successfully for several years.

    Driverless cars have been the subject of popular imagination for decades. A driverless electric car, powered by circuits embedded in the roadway and controlled by radio, was the dominant feature of the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been supporting research into autonomous vehicles since the 1980s and sponsors a driverless vehicle competition, called the DARPA Grand Challenge. Smaller scale experiments have been going on for some time. A fleet of driverless Buicks, partially sponsored by California state agencies, navigated a seven mile stretch of automated highway near San Diego in 1997, guided by magnets embedded in the roadway.

    Autos would seem to be an unnecessary diversion for Google, which has its hands full with debates over copyright law enforcement, rogue drug ads, and censorship in China. But as its focus on its Android operating system makes clear, having largely exploited its position in online search, it is looking for new worlds to conquer. With 15 million new cars sold in the U.S. every year, and 60 million worldwide, the potential market for driverless cars is huge.

    As Google explains it, its automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to "see" other traffic and detailed maps to navigate the road ahead. The Google advantage comes from its data centers, which can process enormous amounts of information gathered by its cars when mapping their terrain.

    Google modestly believes it may have achieved "a first in robotics research," but if the claims it makes are true, it has achieved a once-in-a-generation breakthrough. Its automated cars have driven from Mountain View in northern California to Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevard in southern California, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and circumnavigated Lake Tahoe. In all, its fleet of seven self-driving cars has covered over 140,000 miles -- presumably without incident.

    Assuming it can develop a commercially viable product, what is Google's future in the auto industry?

    Probably not as a vehicle manufacturer. Too much capital is required for too little return.

    Probably not as a parts supplier. Google has made its billions selling ideas, not making things.

    Probably not in partnership with a full-line manufacturer. Why should Google limit itself to one customer?

    As the exclusive supplier of proprietary software? Bingo! Google's automated driver system has the potential to become the operating standard for every car in the world -- the Windows of motor vehicles. Why not? Google has the capability, the ambition, and the resources. With $36 billion in cash in the bank at last count, and more piling up every day, it is hard to imagine a better investment -- both for Google and the future of personal transportation.

    As Google's chief researcher on the project, Sebastian Thrun, put it, "Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology. And one of the big problems we're working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use."

    Henry Ford, move over for Larry and Sergey.

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