07 September

This summer I spent some time in the San Francisco Bay area and visited Google's Mountain View "campus" where I went for a drive in one of the self-driving cars. The fact that Google has developed a small fleet of cars that can drive themselves completely automatically has been widely reported. These cars drive themselves on city streets, highways and across bridges completely automatically finally delivering on a widely anticipated vision of the future. For the time being, a human driver is always required at the wheel to take responsibility for the car's actions and assume control in case of emergency, but there is no doubt in my mind that once these cars enter the mainstream it will not be many years before the prospect of a human assuming control on normal streets will be regarded as an antiquated risk to safe driving.

For my drive, which I shared with a couple of friends and colleagues, we had two Google staff members in the front seat. Their job during our drive, as for the drives they said they take every day, is to both supervise the car's behavior and to log and observe any anomalous things that happen on the road or in the car's behavior. For example, during our ride a cyclist's bike fell into the road nearby. The car handled it fine, but the staffers made notes in the log that would allow them to inspect the data later and carefully analyze how the car handled the event.

The car is still experimental and very exotic. One of my former students who work at Google was rather jealous of my opportunity. No doubt, all the Googler's will get their chance some time soon. On the other hand, the experience is very conceptual and rather anti-climactic. Other than chatting with the computer science staffers that are involved, you are just driving around on what feels like a perfectly unremarkable car ride (except for some technically interesting live data displays the software engineers have).

It's not clear yet how the robot car will enter the mainstream, but at least 9 different US states have already added legislation that allows robot cars to operate on their roads (with a human supervisor at the wheel). The cars have safely driven over 500,000 miles by now, and they have done so with an essentially perfect safety record, which is better than comparable human drivers.

It will be interesting to see if any Canadian provinces take this plunge in the near future, but I rather doubt it since I suspect the required legislation requires the intercession of Google legal staff, and Canadian's are still waiting for Google Voice to come to Canada almost a decade after it's availability in the USA. Moreover, the challenging weather that Canadian's face for most of the winter certainly don't make this a great location for initial introduction. More generally, it seems unlikely that the self-driving car will first appear as a product for the ordinary consumer, due to it's very substantial cost and the importance of a positive initial reception.

Among the advantages the self-driving car will offer include the increased mobility it will offer physically or visually impaired people, the promise of a much safer driving experience, the ability to carry heavier traffic loads on existing roads, and reduced fuel consumption due to more efficient driving behavior. Whatever the path to commercial introduction is, the robot car has really arrived, it's really working now and it was a thrill to get to drive in it.

Google Self-driving Car
Google Self-driving Car
(Click to expand)

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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