Sebastian Thrun is considered to be one of the advanced thinkers of Silicon Valley. He invented Google Street View for Alphabet, Google's parent, and wrote the first code for an autonomous car. The Alphabet startup Waymo, which is developing technology for automated driving, came out of that research.
Thrun, 51, who is German, is CEO of the flying-car startup Kitty Hawk. Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the 100 most influential thinkers in the world, ranking him fourth.
He spoke with Automotive News Europe Correspondents Burkhard Riering and Agnes Vogt.
Q: How far along are German automakers when it comes to autonomous driving?
A:Germany was originally in the forefront thanks to Mercedes. The brand has been involved with autonomous driving for a long time. I currently consider the Google-Waymo team to be the best. But its lead is shrinking. Audi, BMW, VW and Mercedes are making progress.
What makes Waymo better than the others? Do you consider it to be the leader because it's the team that you built for Google?
I am naturally proud of what my former colleagues are doing. But they have worked on this a few years longer than all the others. We were already driving on public roads in California in 2011, even in San Francisco and Los Angeles. We covered more than a million miles back then — without an accident.
At the time, did you drive in secret or with authorization?
In fact, we did it secretly in the beginning. There were no laws. None for the technology and none against it. But then we made it public and then worked very closely with the authorities. In Germany, we lose thousands of people on the road every year. The figure is more than 40,000 in the United States and 1.2 million worldwide. Here the self-driving automobile has an opportunity to perform better than human beings. The technology will improve from year to year. It is only a question of time.
What does the autonomous car mean for the industry — for manufacturers and suppliers?
Germany is highly dependent on the automobile. One of the visions is that people will use self-driving cars as taxis and not even own a car anymore. It will no longer be worth it to own a car yourself. Based on my calculations, the use of tomorrow's driverless autonomous taxis, which would come and pick us up, will be about 40 percent less expensive than owning your own car. That means that vehicle production levels will decline sharply. The entire industry should be preparing for this.
Does the auto industry have the ability to adapt its business models to the trends surrounding autonomous driving?
That is the million-dollar question, and it is becoming very exciting. The fact is that auto companies have to change. Those that are making the greatest progress are technology companies such as Baidu, Google, Nvidia and Intel. It's possible that the future will be determined by Lyft, Didi and Uber — or by Google and Nvidia. German car companies are very aware of the trend.
Things were different five years ago. I was often derided back then, but not anymore. The trend applies to aviation as well as cars. At Kitty Hawk, we firmly believe that aircraft can be an alternative for everyday city transportation. Even passenger planes are becoming very affordable. People may deride the idea today, but I'll bet we'll be sitting here seriously discussing the issue in five years.
Does that mean certain automotive brands will no longer be around in the more distant future?
It all comes down to the way automakers deal with this. In the long run, autonomous driving and flying cars will make things difficult for them. Today, a car is only used 4 percent of the day. It is not the perfect solution.
The auto industry is extolling self-driving cars as the third living space, after the living room and the office. People might not even want to share this space. On the other hand, you believe in robotaxis.
Cost will be the major issue. Based on my calculations, a mile in a self-driving robotaxi will cost about 30 U.S. cents. If you own a self-driving car, you would pay 50 U.S. cents for a mile. At $9,500, a car is the second-largest cost item in an American household. If you could reduce these costs to $6,000 with autonomous driving, you would make families very happy.
At Tesla, CEO Elon Musk has warned that artificial intelligence could get out of control in the future. Do we need limits on it?
Artificial intelligence is often misunderstood. Hollywood movies lead us to believe that intelligent entities will suppress humans in the future. But the AI systems that I am familiar with can only do one thing. The self-driving car can't play chess, and the chess computer can't fly a plane, and the aircraft autopilot can't diagnose cancer. In short, the systems are good at one thing — but not more than one.
Many people fear that intelligent robots will steal their jobs.
The fear is real, and it is important that we handle this right. Technology has always improved human life. It hasn't made life worse. A century and a half ago, there was no electricity, no penicillin, no lines for drinking water, no smartphones — all the things that are important to us today.
A century and a half ago, there were no radio reporters or software engineers — jobs that exist today. That is why I firmly believe that we will continue to have enough work. The important thing is that society remain open to change — and head into the future with optimism and trust.
What startup would you create today if you had enough time?
One that would take over repetitive work with the help of artificial intelligence, the work that highly paid and well-trained people now do. Doctors, attorneys, people working in insurance or controlling — they all do work that an algorithm could handle very well. This fact alone creates space for new business models. Much will be done in this area in the near future.