Back in the spring, driving home at dusk along 280, I noticed a Prius up ahead with a curious spinning truncated cone on its roof. From my experiences at the DARPA Urban Challenge I knew I was looking at a lidar range finder, often used on robotic vehicles. Intrigued, I pulled up alongside and could see a glowing LCD panel mounted in the passenger seat. I could tell that there was someone in the driver's seat (phew!) but not what he or she might be doing.
At the time I guessed this was a calibration run for another vehicle from the Stanford Center for Automotive Research. But it seems that what I saw was identical to a car video'ed by Robert Scoble (it even looks like 280 on his vid) and since identified as one of Google's self-driving cars. Less than three years from a set of rather twitchy military-funded demostration projects to something that was doing at least as well as the average Silicon Valley commuter (and was presumably signed off by Google's attorneys). A decent learning curve!
From a technologist's point of view, this is of course awesome and great fun. From an investor's POV, I'm left scratching my head a little. Some of Google's seeming digressions, such as Chrome and Android, actually make a lot of sense. They're about making sure that Google's end user touch points won't be compromised by closed networks or proprietary software. Jumping clear over telematics and into robotics is a bit of a stretch, though, along many dimensions: product cycle, capital requirements, channels and regulation, to name but a few.
The other possibility is that there is NO business plan. Perhaps what we're seeing is the result of the biggest cabal of Google engineers ever, using their 20% innovation time to pull off a state-of-the-art robotics project right under the eyes and flapping ears of Silicon Valley's pundits. Which would be doubly cool, and a sign that Google is assuming one of the social roles of companies with (near) monopoly margins over time, sponsoring open ended research. Shades of Bell Labs back in the day, minus the centralized planning?