Late last year, Google revealed that a fleet of self-driving vehicles it’s developing has already logged about 200,000 kilometres on public roads and streets in California.
Which begs a lot of profound questions, like… Where were the cops? … Even if driver-less technology has arrived, should we use it? … Who pays when a driverless car hits something? … And who is getting in the first one certified for public use, because it’s not going to be me?
The brains behind the Google self-driving initiative is Sebastian Thrun. Before moving to Google, he was behind several Stanford driverless vehicle projects, including Stanley, the first ever-winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a U.S. military contest worth $2 million in grants, for a driverless vehicle that could pass several challenges in desert conditions.
Thrun believes we should peruse driverless vehicle technology for safety reasons. In fact, he opened his talk at the TED Conference earlier this year, by saying that when his best friend died in a vehicle crash at age 18, he soon decided to dedicate his life to one day saving one million people per year from vehicle-related deaths.
Others have made this case before, that vehicles that can communicate to each other, and that are connected to a common grid of some kind, could easily be programmed to stay out of each other’s way. (Most accident deaths are caused by human error.)
Thrun also believes that driverless vehicle can save much gasoline and human time. We can save gas, he says, by increasing the capacity of our current roadways “by a factor of two or three.” With totally automated systems, vehicles should be able to travel very close together, and on vary narrow ribbons, or so he says. This would also get rid of gridlock, which he figures robs the U.S. of about 4 billion hours of wasted time every year.
He ended by saying that he and others are working toward, and looking forward to, a future time, “when generations look back at us and say how ridiculous it was that humans were driving cars.”
We’re a long ways from that “utopia.” Even if there are no technology issues, a lot of governments, legislators, citizens, etc., will have to get on board.
But I think the biggest hurdle in our lifetime is the collective memory of current drivers. The Google vehicles started life as normal Toyota Prius models. For the California tests, two engineers sat in the driver and passenger seats at all times — to monitor the computer systems linking the maps, video cameras, radars and lasers, servo-motors, etc., and for driver backup, in case of driver-less driver malfunction.
I don’t know how those guys did it. I rode shotgun once in a driverless car at Chrysler’s proving grounds in Michigan, and it wasn’t easy. I squirmed in my seat. I stared and swore at the invisible driver. I did not enjoy it.
I suppose I could have viewed it as an amusement ride, or like getting on a train. But I knew where such a train was heading — to a future where I wasn’t allowed behind the wheel.