A breakthrough in transportation has an unlikely champion: Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) .
Yes, that Google.
In a surprising announcement over the weekend, the world's leading search engine announced that it has logged 140,000 miles in driverless cars as it maps terrain and takes snapshots for its Google Maps site.
At first, I thought this was part of some elaborate prank. Google -- like Fool.com -- is known for its April Fools' Day jokes -- but we're at the other end of the calendar now, and this announcement is entirely real.
I then progressed from disbelief to shock. How dare Google endanger civilians by sending driverless cars onto the roads? Is that even legal?
Thankfully, these automated cars are actually manned by trained operators. And even though the technology seems "pie in the sky" and cost-prohibitive, Google is still spinning it as a feasible reality on the road. In fact, Big G predicts that its technology can save as many as half of the 1.2 million lives lost in roadside accidents every year.
"Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time, and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use," Google engineer Sebastian Thrun writes in the official Google blog.
Don't let that second point whiz by you. That selling point might truly drive this technology into the mainstream marketplace a lot quicker than anyone expects. Armed with a robotic chauffer and online connectivity, a commuter would have more time to check Gmail, play with an Android-fueled smartphone, work on a Google Docs app, and scour the Google-ized web. We can be more productive -- or at the very least, more entertained. Meanwhile, Big G will be there to collect the advertising spoils.
This could be why Google, not Ford (NYSE: F ) or consumer robotics leader iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT ) , is championing this technology. At the end of the day, there's serious money to be made in giving consumers more time online. And if Google's providing the technology to put self-driving cars on the road, it doesn't have to take a backseat to rivals.
History will smile kindly on 2010 in the automotive industry. The year will be remembered for General Motors' emergence from bankruptcy and Tesla Motors' (Nasdaq: TSLA ) IPO. It will take years -- and perhaps even a decade or two -- to see Google's vision transform into a feasible mainstream innovation, but we can always point to 2010 as the year when Google began to dream publicly about the possibilities.
How realistic is Google's goal of saving up to 600,000 lives a year with smart cars? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.