Self-driving Cars

By Jason Poggioli

Wouldn’t it be nice to hop into your car, choose a destination, and just let your wheels take you away knowing that you’d arrive safely – carefully ferried by an awe-inspiring computer intelligence?  What once sounded like the stuff of far distant science fiction took a big step closer to reality two weeks ago.  Google, that ultra-hip and seemingly omniscient technology company, announced it was not only working on exactly that kind of future tech, but that it had quietly been test driving autonomous cars on busy California highways and streets for months.  That’s right, self-driving cars on the open roads of California navigating the Pacific Highway and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course, a human was always in the driver’s seat if it became necessary to take control of the car and apparently it was on many of the 140,000 miles Google’s fleet of modified Toyota Priuses racked up.  However, Google has stated that a whopping 1,000 of those miles were logged without a single instance of human intervention.  In fact, the worst mishap reported was a mild fender bender when a human driven car (perhaps with a mildly distracted driver?) rear-ended one of the Google cars stopped at a traffic light.

Needless to say, this news has lit the blogosphere up with speculation as to when driving a car will be relegated to join the ranks of 8 tracks and rotary phones.  The futurists are all waiting with bated breath to be able to climb into their “personal transports” to be whisked away while finishing their coffee, bagel and makeup.  Google, being most familiar with the technology, has stated for the record that it’s at least eight years away from mass production and most technologists think it’s further off than that.  What I don’t understand is why all the bloggers and tech reporters are talking about 100% automation instead of what huge benefits even partial automation would bring.

In some respects the auto industry has been taking baby steps when it comes to automating the driving experience.  Traction control and anti-lock brakes are a couple examples of technology assisted driving while most of the responsibility is still left to the human operator.  A number of car models are even offering the ability to parallel park themselves, although you still have to feed the meter.  If Google is already making prototype cars that can completely drive themselves what kinds of driving assistance can we expect to see in just a few more years?

Driver distractions are multiplying faster than a teenager’s thumbs bouncing around the keys of his cell phone.  Once upon a time (actually, just a little more than ten years ago) the car radio and morning cup of coffee were the most dangerous distractions a driver had to carefully manage.  Now we have cell phones, GPS devices, and text messages adding to a growing list of things competing with the road for our attention.  Even the cars themselves, with full computer screens in the dashboard feeding you readouts on real-time gas mileage, battery consumption, and other miscellaneous car vitals conspire to take your eyes off the road.  Something needs to step in and solve this rapidly growing danger.

I’m a big fan of technology and an even bigger fan of the idea that technology can solve the very problems it creates.  While passing laws on cell phone usage and making public service announcements about texting while driving are laudable attempts to get drivers to pay more attention I see the ultimate solution being a car that can take over when necessary.

People love to be in control and love the illusion of being in control even more.  When a driver is fully paying attention hauling down a highway at 65 miles per hour he really only has the slightest control over their vehicle and that’s why driving remains the most dangerous form of travel.  As long as drivers have their hands on the wheel, though, the illusion of control is maintained which is why so many people intuitively feel more comfortable driving rather than flying.  Giving up that imaginary control willingly and openly isn’t going to happen any time soon.

My prediction is that self-driving cars will begin as silent guardians watching over the road as you juggle that breakfast sandwich and Blackberry. Just as ABS brakes and traction control only step in when danger is inevitable so will our computerized co-pilots.  Human drivers will be content maintaining their illusion of control long after they’ve given over navigation responsibilities to their autonomous automobiles.  It can’t happen too soon.

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