Without a Driver in Mind: The Google Doodlebug

On February 7, 1661, at the tender age of seven, the Kangxi Emeror who would become the longest reigning emperor in history, ascended to China’s throne. It would be another six years before he managed to seize full control from his regents, but when he did, he proved to be a successful ruler.

Part of the reason for this, I have to think, is that he had at least one really smart friend. You know that friend, right? He’s the (kind of nerdy) one who seems to know at least a little bit about everything and can come up with solutions to any problem.

For the young emperor, that friend was a Jesuit priest named Ferdinand Verbiest who was serving as a missionary in China. Verbiest became a favorite teacher, tutoring the emperor in geometry, philosophy, and music.

Ferdinand Verbiest, Jesuit (1623-1666)
Ferdinand Verbiest, Jesuit (1623-1666)

He spoke more than six languages, wrote more than thirty books, designed and oversaw construction of an aqueduct, was a capable cartographer, used fancy European astronomical gadgetry to correct the Chinese calendar, and rebuilt and headed the Beijing Ancient Observatory. In a day before everyone had the ability to google the answer to any question, a guy like Verbiest was pretty handy to have around.

And then to top it all off, he constructed a totally cool toy to impress the Kangxi Emeror, because what’s a know-it-all nerdy friend without a few impressive gadgety toys?

What Verbiest designed was a steam-powered vehicle. It was designed without a driver in mind as it was only a little over 25 inches long and though he describes it in his book Astronomia Europea, it’s not clear whether or not he ever built it. Still (not to take any credit away from Karl Benz) this may have been, at least in concept, the world’s first ever self-propelled “car.”

SteamMachineOfVerbiestIn1678
SteamMachineOfVerbiestIn1678

So let’s skip ahead a few centuries. I don’t know whether or not you yourself have one of those nerdy know-it-all friends like Verbiest, but fortunately, we all have access to one. In our house, we call him “Google.” Thanks to our smart phones this “friend” now goes with us everywhere and he knows (or at least he thinks he does) pretty much everything about anything.

photo credit: Mez Love via photopin cc
photo credit: Mez Love via photopin cc

Of course you do have to be a little careful because he can’t always be counted on to give you an entirely correct answer. For example, you might ask him who invented the first car and he’ll direct you to some silly blog post about Ferdinand Verbiest, which you should probably just ignore.

But he has held up his end of the nerdy know-it-all friend bargain in the gadgety toy department. After all he did make you a pair of glasses that allow you to pretend to be the Terminator. And now he’s made you a self-propelled car that is designed without a driver in mind.

Just yesterday, Google announced that this summer, it will have about a hundred prototype vehicles ready for testing, without a gas pedal, steering wheel, or brake pedal among them. But don’t worry, your friend Google isn’t a complete idiot. He will include two seatbelts just in case some irresponsible driver of a regular old human-controlled car slams into you.

The new self-driving car seats two, won’t go over 25 miles per hour, and, frankly, looks kind of like a toy. Google hasn’t released a name yet for its newest gadget. I’m thinking it should be the Google Doodlebug. I’m also thinking, I probably won’t be lining up to drive ride in one any time soon.