Pivot Factory Podcast - Episode 5 - Brad Templeton

Mar 19, 2019 4:44:29 PM / by Pivot Factory

Thirty years ago this month, the World Wide Web went live, ushering in a new world of connectivity and information sharing.

That the Web is only 30 is a bit unfathomable when you consider how far we’ve come in such a relatively short period. From “You've got mail” to AIM and search engines to Facebook and much, much more, the sporadic checking of emails of yesteryear has been eclipsed by 24/7 push notifications and selfies with dog ears.

What is also extraordinary is that well before the Web and internet became ubiquitous tools—the latter, several decades older—instantly transporting users to a new digital universe (perhaps not quite that instantly), Brad Templeton had already created the world’s first .com business, and was making money doing it.

Given the news industry’s near-universal failure to adapt to the digital age, it’s interesting that Templeton’s first foray into e-commerce was via the news. He had founded a digital news service relying on content from wire services and syndicated columnists. In effect, Templeton acted as its editor and publisher, curating important news items and publishing each edition to a network of subscribers.

Obviously, a lot has changed since.

Templeton now has a new passion, one that could completely disrupt the world as we know it: self-driving cars.

In the latest episode of Pivot Factory Podcast, host Michael Leadbetter interviews Templeton about some of his early projects, his work with Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, and how his initial vision of the internet compares to its current reality. 


Templeton made history early on, when he established ClariNet Communication as the internet’s first .com business. The initial incarnation of the internet had a rule that you couldn’t do business on it, Templeton said.

“Many people wanted to do a business on it, but had a no-commercial-use policy, cause the central network backbone was funded by the National Science Foundation of the United States,” he explains.

Templeton, who had been exploring the ARPanet, the predecessor to the internet in the 1970s, had already been spending a great deal of his time navigating cyberspace, so figured he should find a way to make money doing so. He discovered a loophole that enabled him to sell the electronic newspaper to subscribers, the first being Stanford University. His subscriber base grew to include corporate clients and early Internet Service Providers (ISPs), enabling customers to access news reports hours before they appeared in print.  The e-paper’s slogan, “All The News Before It’s Printed,” was a play off The New York Times’ venerable phrase.

As has become the norm in Silicon Valley, Templeton eventually sold ClariNet Communications to another firm. As luck would have it, Templeton was living in Silicon Valley when he met two of his early subscribers, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, sparking a friendship with Page that would have implications for the future of one of the world’s leading industries: automobiles.


Page and Brin were still in the early stages of working on Google when Templeton met the pair.

Soon, however, their discussions about the power of the internet were overtaken by nascent visions of autonomous vehicles.

“This is real and this is going to happen much sooner than most people expect,” he recalls. “And it’s going to change the world.”

In mid 2000s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Department of Defense’s research lab, began running contests on self-driving cars to “encourage” people to explore the realm of autonomous vehicles, said Templeton. The winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge was Sebastian Thrun, who would later go on to head the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL).

After meeting Thrun and hearing about his work, Templeton said he had an epiphany.

“This is real and this is going to happen much sooner than most people expect,” he recalls. “And it’s going to change the world.”

His curiosity sparked, Templeton began conducting his own research on self-driving cars, sharing his writings with Page, the current CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Page had already started a project exploring robocars, and invited Templeton to join as a consultant. The project, then called “Chauffeur,” included the links of Thrun and others who performed well in the DARPA Challenge.


Templeton prefers to stay out of the prediction business, but he expects to see more pilot programs running in the early 2020s. Competition is heating up.

Waymo, Google’s subsidiary, is currently conducting practice runs in Phoenix. Uber is doing the same in Pittsburgh, despite a high-profile fatality caused by one of its vehicles, and Lyft and GM are also getting in on the action.

“There are dozens of teams now at various stages of development, all aiming to grab the prize,” Templeton tells Leadbetter. “And the prize is immense, because ground transportation in the world is about a $7 trillion industry, about $5 trillion of it in cars.

“Trillion is not a word you get to bandy around too much, but it’s very much a real word in this world,” he adds.

From potentially reducing traffic fatalities and radically transforming the notion of car ownership to completely overhauling transportation in certain cities and productivity more generally, self-driving cars, once they’re deployed, will have a domino effect in how they impact society, explains Templeton.

“There’s a reason why we spend $5 trillion driving around in cars. They are so much a part of our lives,” he says. “I calculate that Americans spend about 50 billion hours manipulating steering wheels, not a super productive activity. That, if you want to put it in contrast, the entire productive labor output of that country is about 240 billion hours. That’s how much of our time we spend on steering. We won’t have to do that and we won’t have to kill all the people—1.2 million people around the world killed in car crashes, about 37,000 killed in the United States.”

Of course, as Templeton explains, self-driving cars won’t be available to everyone. These vehicles will only be able to operate in the cities they’ve been tested, due to the technology enabling them to operate unaided by a human.

“There’s a reason why we spend $5 trillion driving around in cars. They are so much a part of our lives.”

“So if you live in one of the cities, which these companies decide to deploy in, you’ll be seeing it in the early 2020s to mid 2020s,” he says. “If you don’t live in such a city, then you won’t be seeing it, except when you travel. So it’ll be kind of weird. It’s not like electric Tesla. You can buy an electric Tesla in California, and then you can drive it almost anywhere in the world, and it will still drive. These vehicles will only drive where they’ve been tested and certified to drive, because people are very concerned about making sure they’re safe. It will be a very an unevenly distributed world as to whether you get to use this or not.”


For nearly all his professional life, Templeton has been consumed by the internet’s prowess. And he’s very optimistic about its ability to spread information and be a source for good. But he recognizes that people—and governments—may take advantage of its democratizing power to corrupt populations, or be used as a tool for repression.

To that end, Templeton is a former board member for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet and privacy rights advocacy group based in San Francisco. He currently serves as Chairman Emeritus for the nonprofit, focusing on the intersection of civil rights and emerging technologies.

While we don’t want to give everything away, Templeton talks about how he reconciles with the fact that the internet, for all the good it’s done, has been used in nefarious ways.

“This is a great fear I’ve had for some time, and which is it used to be when you wanted to have a police state you sort of had to roll tanks into the streets—and we all remember Tiananmen Square, where they literally rolled tanks in the streets,” he says. “Now we’re creating a world where you can have a police state by pushing a button and changing the policy file in the routers, and suddenly, you have control and you can redirect all the infrastructure that everything goes over, and redirect it in malicious ways. And this is happening in China, and we have to fear that it can happen in other countries, as well.”


What’s clear from Leadbetter’s conversation with Templeton is that once self-driving cars are approved to hit the road, it will have significant implications for society overall, as well as car manufacturers.

Will people abandon car ownership? How will these cars impact an already struggling taxi industry? And perhaps most importantly: Will these vehicles actually be safer than cars manipulated by actual humans?

It appears we’ll all see soon enough, since the race to get these autonomous machines on the road is heating up.


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The Pivot Factory Podcast is a Morey Creative Studios production.

The Pivot Factory Podcast is hosted by Michael Leadbetter, and engineered and produced by Michael Conforti, Rashed Mian and Christopher Twarowski. Jed Morey is the executive producer.