The future according to Google’s Larry Page – Fortune Tech
Google CEO Larry Page envisions a future in which computers plan your vacations, drive your cars, and anticipate your whims. Audacious? Maybe. But Page’s dreams have a way of coming true.
Note: On Jan 3, as Fortune published this article, the Federal Trade Commission ended its investigation of Google’s search practices saying it found no evidence that the company manipulated search results in violation of antitrust laws. The European Commission and other regulators continue to investigate the issue.
FORTUNE — When Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, the giant advertising agency, visited Google this past fall, CEO Larry Page sent a car to pick him up at the Rosewood Hotel about 20 miles away. Only this was no ordinary car. The Lexus SUV drove itself thanks to a slew of high-tech tools, including radars, sensors, and a laser scanner that takes more than 1.5 million measurements every second. For about 20 minutes, while navigating I-280 and the area’s busy State Route 85, the car cruised on autopilot, making quick course corrections, slowing down here when traffic loomed ahead, speeding up there to get out of the blind spot of a neighboring vehicle. “It was pretty incredible,” says Sorrell.
Page’s chauffeurless car service is no mere parlor trick. It is, as Page will tell anyone who’ll listen, the future of transportation. Never mind that most people think the mere idea of computer-driven cars is (1) preposterous, (2) dangerous, or (3) not much fun. Page makes the case for self-driving cars with the dispassionate logic of an engineer. The father of two young children, Page insists that his pet project, when ready, will actually enhance safety. Soon Google (GOOG) will be able to simulate your driving, “but just make sure you don’t die and kill anybody else,” he tells me during an interview in the private “bullpen” where he meets with his top lieutenants. He methodically enumerates the other advantages of driverless cars. There are energy savings (traffic would flow more efficiently) and productivity gains (commuting hours reclaimed). There will be cost savings too — in the millions of dollars at Google alone. The Googleplex, he says, is short on parking, and quotes for new garages have come in at $40,000 per car. Why not let the car drop you off and go park itself offsite? Page asks. “Whenever you need it,” he adds, “your phone notices that you’re walking out of the building, and your car is there immediately by the time you get downstairs.”
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Sounds like a crazy mashup of the Jetsons and the ’80s TV show Knight Rider. But that’s just the kind of future Page wants Google to create, and the kind of big idea that excites him. Since Google’s founding in 1998, Page and cofounder Sergey Brin set out to build a company that made long-term bets on audacious ideas. Many quickly became essential products. And it was Page who was known for championing the craziest ones, like photographing every inch of every street to create a digital replica of the real world, scanning every book ever printed to assemble the world’s largest library, and building a machine that could translate between any two languages (4,200 pairs of languages to date). So when Fortune set out to understand the future of computing, machine learning, and even transportation, we turned to Page to learn about how Google is reinventing just about everything — including itself.
Outlandish ideas and effective, pragmatic management rarely go hand in hand. What’s remarkable about Page is that while he’s been pushing his engineers and executives to pursue big dreams, he has also been running a complex $38 billion business of 53,000 workers with surprising efficacy. When he took over in April 2011, Google’s once-phenomenal innovation engine was showing signs of age, and bureaucracy was beginning to take root. Page quickly reorganized the company to give top executives more responsibility and accountability and to sharpen Google’s focus on a handful of product areas. The result is a more top-down and aggressive organization. The changes have ruffled the feathers of some old-timers who miss the more freewheeling ways of Google’s first decade. But almost everyone agrees that Google is running more cohesively and faster than when Page took over. It’s a feat that has surprised many in Silicon Valley, where Page’s wonkish, diffident persona is legendary. “Larry’s substance has been so high, and his ability to run the company so impressive, that he has overcome all those things,” says Ben Horowitz, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who often coaches first-time CEOs. “It’s fairly shocking how well he’s done.”