Google X Factor

DeVaul insists that it’s often just as easy, or easier, to make inroads on the biggest problems “than to try to optimize the next 5% or 2% out of some process.” Think about cars, he tells me. If you want to design a car that gets 80 mpg, it requires a lot of work, yet it really doesn’t address the fundamental problem of global fuel resources and emissions. But if you want to design a car that gets 500 mpg, which actually does attack the problem, you are by necessity freed from convention, since you can’t possibly improve an existing automotive design by such a degree. Instead you start over, reexamining what a car really is. You think of different kinds of motors and fuels, or of space-age materials of such gossamer weight and iron durability that they alter the physics of transportation. Or you dump the idea of cars altogether in favor of a ­substitute. And then maybe, just maybe, you come up with something worthy of X.

The Truth About Google X: An Exclusive Look Behind The Secretive Lab’s Closed Doors