The philanthropy is consulting with hybrid-engine scientists and automakers, and has arranged for the purchase of a small fleet of cars with plans to convert the engines so that their gas mileage exceeds 100 miles per gallon. The goal of the project is to reduce dependence on oil while alleviating the effects of global warming.
Google.org is drawing skeptics for both its structure and its ambitions. It is a slingshot compared with the artillery of charities established by older captains of industry. Its financing pales next to the tens of billions that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will have at its disposal, especially with the coming infusion of some $3 billion a year from Warren E. Buffett, the founder of Berkshire Hathaway.
But Google’s philanthropic work is coming early in the company’s lifetime. Microsoft was 25 years old before Bill Gates set up his foundation, which is a tax-exempt organization and separate from Microsoft.
By choosing for-profit status, Google will have to pay taxes if company shares are sold at a profit — or if corporate earnings are used — to finance Google.org. Any resulting venture that shows a profit will also have to pay taxes. Shareholders may not like the fact that the Google.org tax forms will not be made public, but kept private as part of the tax filings of the parent, Google Inc.
Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, believe for-profit status will greatly increase their philanthropy’s range and flexibility. It could, for example, form a company to sell the converted cars, finance that company in partnership with venture capitalists, and even hire a lobbyist to pressure Congress to pass legislation granting a tax credit to consumers who buy the cars.
The executive director whom Mr. Page and Mr. Brin have hired, Dr. Larry Brilliant, is every bit as iconoclastic as Google’s philanthropic arm. Dr. Brilliant, a 61-year-old physician and public health expert, has studied under a Hindu guru in a monastery at the foothills of the Himalayas and worked as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
In one project, which Dr. Brilliant brought with him to the job, Google.org will try to develop a system to detect disease outbreaks early.
Dr. Brilliant likens the traditional structure of corporate foundations to a musician confined to playing only the high register on a piano. “Google.org can play on the entire keyboard,” Dr. Brilliant said in an interview. “It can start companies, build industries, pay consultants, lobby, give money to individuals and make a profit.”
While declining to comment on the car project specifically, Dr. Brilliant said he would hope to see such ventures make a profit. “But if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care,” he said. “We’re not doing it for the profit. And if we didn’t get our capital back, so what? The emphasis is on social returns, not economic returns.”
Development of ultra-high-mileage cars is under way at a number of companies, from Toyota to tiny start-ups. Making an engine that uses E85 — a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — is not difficult, but the lack of availability of the fuel presents a challenge, said Brett Smith, a senior industry analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Another barrier, Mr. Smith said, lies in the batteries for so-called plug-in hybrids, which require more powerful batteries that charge more quickly than the current generation of hybrid batteries.
There are skeptics, too, among tax lawyers and other pragmatists familiar with the world of philanthropy. They wonder whether Google’s directors might be tempted to take back some of the largess in an economic downturn.
“The money is at the beck and call of the board of directors and shareholders,” said Marcus S. Owens, a tax lawyer in Washington who spent a decade as director of the exempt organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service. “It’s possible the shareholders of Google might someday object, especially if we go into an economic depression and that money is needed to shore up the company.”
And there is the question of how many of the planet’s problems can truly be addressed by a single corporate entity.
But even while expressing reservations about Google’s approach, Mr. Owens said that the structure of Google.org “eliminates all the constraints that might otherwise apply.”
The only conventional part of Google.org is the Google Foundation, a nonprofit with an endowment of $90 million that is constrained in how it spends by the 501(c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue Service code.