Google goes green

After the virtual world of the Google search engine and the satellite-eye view of Google Earth, how about the power-saving Google car? The world's best known search engine on Monday launched its first significant philanthropic initiative, lateral in its thinking but atypically slow and modest in its scale. In tune with the global warming zeitgest, […]

After the virtual world of the Google search engine and the satellite-eye view of Google Earth, how about the power-saving Google car?

The world’s best known search engine on Monday launched its first significant philanthropic initiative, lateral in its thinking but atypically slow and modest in its scale.

In tune with the global warming zeitgest, Google.org unveiled details of $11m in grants and projects to speed the development of the plug-in hybrid electric car. On top of $1m in funding to research institutes and think tanks, it offered $10m to researchers seeking help in designing a new generation of cars with electric batteries powerful enough to sell back surplus power to the electricity grid during off-peak hours.

The idea comes shortly after Google’s reputation has been dented by a controversy over the re-use of information in searches conducted by millions of daily users, which has raised questions of privacy violation.

More than a year ago, Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page pledged that Google.org would receive 1 per cent of the company’s profits and 1 per cent of its $1bn equity, following in the footsteps of such high tech West Coast entrepreneurs as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.

They quickly appointed Larry Brilliant, a highly respected doctor and public health expert, to run the organisation, but have spent many months mulling over how best to allocate spending between global development, global health and fighting global warming.

Unlike other philanthropists, they have opted to keep the bulk of their financial pledges outside a non-profit structure, a move designed to give them more flexibility in deciding how to spend money for social good, including the option of doing so through for-profit ventures.

While waiting for the results of its research, Google said it was launching up to 100 free plug-in cars in its car-sharing scheme.

Plug-in cars are emerging as a holy grail of sorts among advocates of new clean-car technologies. Unlike conventional hybrids such as Toyota’s top-selling Prius, which use battery power but rely heavily on conventional combustion engines, plug-in cars rely on electric power alone for short distances.

They can be recharged from a conventional wall socket at night, which green advocates say is environmentally friendly as power plants have unused capacity at this time.

However, suppliers are still working on the technology for new batteries that would make the cars more viable by giving them a better range.

General Motors, which came under fire in the recent documentary