Google Hits the Road

Google founders Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin and Larry Page in their company's driverless car
Google founders Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin and Larry Page in their company's driverless car Feedloader (Clickability)

I’d like to say that my fascination with driverless cars has nothing to do with my son having a learner’s permit. I’d also like to say my hand gestures to other drivers are meant as a sign of peace.

Not that my son’s a bad driver; he’s actually pretty good. But there still are times when we’d both be happier if the potential for human error wasn’t in the mix. I wouldn’t be pushing my phantom brake pedal to the floor. And he wouldn’t have to keep reminding me that my co-braking was helping neither his confidence nor his ability to slow down the car.

So I was intrigued to read that Nevada has passed a law requiring the state’s Transportation Department to develop regulations for the operation of “autonomous vehicles.” This is not about the altered states of visitors to Vegas, but rather a way for Nevada to get a leg up in becoming the proving ground for robot cars.

Google hired a lobbyist to push for the law. The company built on fine-tuning technology to help us navigate modern life is now mobilizing machines to take on more daunting challenges, things like gridlock, drunk driving and road rage. Quietly, over the past few years, Google has become a leader in designing vehicles in which humans are along for the ride. And its models do way more than parallel park.

To see just what’s possible with a car outfitted with the latest sensors, cameras, lasers, GPS and artificial intelligence, watch the recent TED talk by Sebastian Thrun, who’s been refining the systems since his Stanford team of students and engineers won a self-driving car contest organized by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency back in 2005. To see a tricked-out Prius, sans driver, winding down San Francisco’s Lombard Street, is to believe.

When robots rule

So the technology works. But now comes the tricky part, where innovation runs the gauntlet of cost/benefit analysis, legal murkiness and, in this case, fear of robots—or more accurately, the fear of them making us lesser humans.

Thrun, now working with Google, says his motivation was the death of his best friend in a car accident. His goal is to someday save a million lives a year by taking our hands off the wheel. But he sees other benefits, too, such as making cars and trucks more energy efficient and traffic jams less likely.

Others suggest Google’s motives are less altruistic. Free my hands, the thinking goes, and I have that whole long commute to go online and use some Google product. Still others speculate that the search behemoth is thinking bigger, preparing to build a fleet of shared robot cars, like Zipcars without drivers.

Wherever this goes, it’s likely to take a while to get there. Lawyers haven’t even started to get involved. What happens to the car insurance business? Would the carmaker be liable an accident? Or, since a human occupant would have the capability to take over in an emergency, would he or she be on the hook?

Then there’s this thing a lot of us Americans have about driving. Taking the wheel on the open road is still seen as some kind of a personal declaration of independence. I mean, would Thelma and Louise have blasted off in a Google convertible?

Or imagine Steve McQueen doing this in a robot car?

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