Google’s secretive X division is an incubator of outlandish technologies that aim to solve major world challenges. Many of its "moonshot" projects—from its self-driving car to internet-delivering balloons—have made it into advanced stages of development.
But far more projects are scrapped. "The Silicon Valley hype machine has created this myth of a visionary who effortlessly builds the future. Don’t believe the hype," X director Astro Teller (read Fast Company's profile of him here) said in a TED talk delivered on Monday. In fact, Teller described a process in which the division's teams make every possible effort to kill a project at the very outset. If Alphabet, Google's new umbrella company, thinks a technology’s biggest challenges cannot be realistically addressed with a concrete plan to make it real, then it wants to know as soon as soon as possible.
Here are two examples Teller gives of projects that Google has killed, and one major pivot that could change the way we drive:
For a time, Google was working on an automated vertical farm that grew lettuce. Others have and are attempting a similar idea, the goal being to produce more food in cities—closer to the people who consume it—while using far less water and land resources.
Teller says the team made progress in many technical areas, such as automated harvesting and efficient lighting. "But unfortunately, we couldn’t get staple crops like grains and rice to grow this way," he says. "So we killed the project." Without the ability to grow the major crops the world eats, it will be hard for the technology to change the global food system—instead of just urban farming.
Today, Google is working on delivery drones. But before that, it wanted to develop lighter-than-air variable buoyancy cargo ships that would reduce the enormous infrastructure costs and environmental impact it takes to ship goods around the world. "This has the potential to lower, at least overall, the cost, time, and carbon footprint of shipping without needing runways. It’s really a moonshot," Teller says.
"We came up with this clever set of technical breakthroughs," he says, that together might make it possible to lower the cost and make floating cargo ships at a large enough volume. But, there was a big "but."
"It was going to cost close to $200 million to design and build the first one," he says. "$200 million is just too expensive. ... We can’t spend $200 million to get the first data point about whether we are on the right track or not. If there is an Achilles heel in one of our projects, we want to know it now."
The first driverless cars that Google made weren’t totally driverless. They were retrofitted Lexus vehicles that would mostly drive themselves, but hand control back to the driver in emergency situations. Then the X team gave the cars to Googlers to find out what they thought of the driving experience. They found it was a really bad plan—-people weren’t staying alert enough to take control back from the car as needed.
The user testing led to a pivot—a car that would do all the work, it wouldn’t even have a steering wheel or brake pedal. "We’re really grateful that we had this insight as early on in the project as we did," Teller says. "Sometimes shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart."