Google’s autonomous car is continuing to impress during testing… so how feasible is it for the real world?
It’s Monday. You’re driving along on your daily commute, drinking your morning coffee, eating a delicious breakfast sandwich (or perhaps a yogurt parfait for the health-conscious). You’re also getting a head start on the week’s business by replying to your emails, your feet kicked up on the dashboard, laptop plugged in and resting upon your knees – or you might be checking your Facebook instead, or maybe catching an extra 10 minutes of sleep before your car pulls into the parking lot at work…
Wait a second – you’re on your laptop? While driving your CAR?
Thanks to Google (and perhaps The Jetsons), this seemingly-impossible scenario could very well become a reality much sooner than you might think.
In case you haven’t been glued to your television or tech blogs, the internet search giant has created a fleet of a dozen autonomously-driven cars which use artificial intelligence to navigate the roads. These computers sense the car’s distance to other vehicles, making it possible for the car to navigate itself and mimic human decisions without danger of crashing into another.
So far, the cars have traveled 300,000 miles without a single accident, and Google has just begun to allow employees to test the cars in actual traffic on their daily commutes to and from the office. One car even took the notoriously hairy trip down San Francisco’s Lombard Street without incident.
So far, the project has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. An autonomously-driven car allows for much more passenger freedom, turning the vehicle into a place for socializing, work, or even rest. It’s perfect for the elderly or the disabled. It would virtually eliminate the issue of drunk driving – your car acts as your designated driver every time. The computer reacts faster to hazards than human drivers (according to The Economist, “90 percent of traffic accidents are caused by human error”), it does not get distracted or sleepy, and it is much lighter than traditional vehicles, which reduces fuel consumption. Plus with zero risk of liability, auto insurance (and its costs) becomes obsolete.
The cars still have some obstacles to confront. Some people, including Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, have noted that the car currently will only operate at the speed limit, which most drivers do not do (let’s be honest here). Also, a potential computer crash would create a dire situation if the driver was unable to take back control of the vehicle. The car has not yet been equipped to handle different types of terrain or weather, or recognize temporary construction signs. And some people are just plain uncomfortable with the idea of another robot taking over a human activity.
A bill was recently passed through the California legislature allowing autonomous cars on state roads and freeways. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs it into law, California could be the first state in which to see these cars in action up close and personal.
No word yet on how much a consumer-ready vehicle would cost, but since each test car costs about $150,000 to manufacture (including a laser radar system estimated at a cool $70,000), it’s safe to assume that it would be less than “affordable” for the average Joe.
What do you think? Is the Google car the next great automotive innovation? Or is technology overreaching itself this time?