Google plans driverless cars and internet balloons

Published: 27th September 2013

Google’s Dan Cobley reveals the latest innovations designed by its Google X Lab. Expect driverless cars, Google Glass and something involving high-altitude balloons…

Driverless cars, internet-carrying balloons and broadband connections operating 40 times faster than current speeds, are all set to join Google Glass as break-through technologies currently being developed by Google’s X Lab in California.

Speaking to the Institute of Directors’ 2013 annual convention at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Google UK’s managing director Dan Cobley said such projects were part of the search giant’s realisation that “some big problems that can be solved by technology can move the world, the planet, forward.”

One such project is Google’s design of ‘driverless cars’ to cut traffic accidents (responsible for the deaths of 1.1m people every year). Cobley said the cars have been road-tested on 500,000 miles in California and only crashed twice, both times when stationary and after a ‘drivered’ vehicle has driven into the back of them.

Wearing Google Glass headwear during the speech, Cobley also talked about the reasoning behind the augmented-reality technology. “The idea is that we are all on our phones incessantly the whole day and wouldn’t it be great if the phone just got out of the way and you could have something right in front of your face that could give you the answers,” he said, also talking about the potential for taking pictures without having to use our hands.

The Google X Lab has also recently been working on ‘Project Loon’ – hot air balloons that bring high-speed internet connections to places that don’t have it. “The big issue for many, many people in rural and less developed parts of the world is that they just don’t have access to this amazing internet data that we all have come to rely on,” said Cobley. Project Loon works by sending an internet signal to a high-altitude balloon, which is then bounced across a network of balloons and beamed down to people giving 3G-type speeds to remote locations.

Cobley also talked about Google’s work in Kansas City, which is currently trialing broadband fibre connections (1 gigabit in speed). According to Cobley, it’s “40 times faster than I can get where I live here [in the UK].”

The Google X Lab has been described by The New York Times as “Google’s lab of wildest dreams”. Other projects (called ‘moonshots’ within the company) reportedly being designed by the facility, located half a mile from their ‘Googleplex’ HQ in California, include a neural network and the ‘Web of Things’ (connecting everyday objects to the internet).

Turnover for Google X Lab prototypes appears to be swift. Cobley said, “Larry [Page, Google’s co-founder and chief exec], the guy in charge, said ‘I want a complete new, from the ground-up prototype, every month for the first six months’ and that’s what we have got here. It’s forcing real innovation through prototyping.”

WATCH: Google UK boss Dan Cobley's IoD annual conference speech.