Google Experiments With Robot Cars that Drive Themselves


Photo: Google

No, I Won't Make a Knight Rider Joke

As time goes on, Google's IT tentacles have been spreading outside of the digital realm and into the physical world. The latest example of this is Google's unveiling of its car-driving artificial intelligence project. It is led by Sebastian Thrun, the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory the Google engineer who co-created the Street View mapping service in Google Maps. So far, Google's self-driving test-cars (mostly modified Prius hybrids equipped with computers, cameras and sensors) have driven 140,000 miles with only 1 accident: One Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light. Could this technology have an impact on road safety and fuel efficiency?

Could One Day Save Fuel & Lives, Google Claims

The first thing to note is that this technology isn't ready for prime-time yet, but it's also not completely science fiction. Looking at how far technology has progressed in just the past 10-20 years, it makes it plausible that in the next 10-20 our cars could start to be able to drive themselves safely and efficiently.

Check out how Google's self driving car took a blind man for a very special ride:

At first, people probably won't trust the technology (I know I wouldn't want to be a beta tester). But after a while, people get used to these things (like the autopilot in a plane), and the commercial versions of these "autopilots for cars" will hopefully take human nature into account. It might be nerve-racking to have your car drive itself in a urban area, but it might be fine to have reserved lanes on highways for cars on autopilots. This would allow huge convoys to be formed with small gaps between cars, giving aerodynamic benefits (drafting) and increasing the carrying capacity of existing roads. Lots of rush hour traffic could probably be avoided by having cars communicate with each other and decide what's the most efficient way to use the road. This would also save lots of time and fuel, as well as lives if these systems can be made significantly less error-prone than humans (and once that's been clearly shown, more people will trust their cars to drive themselves in more types of environments).

Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided -- more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption.

That's the Pros... What are the Cons?

Time and fuel saved, accidents avoided. These are the main pros if we can get car AI to work really well. But what about the cons? It can't be all puppies and rainbows, can it?

The main problem for the environment would be that such a system - if it makes things like long drives and rush hour easier - would encourage more car usage and reduce the incentives to use public transportation, walk, cycle, etc. That's a significant problem, but it must be kept in perspective: Under most plausible scenarios, there will be hundreds of millions of cars on the planet's roads in 10-20 years, so they might as well be made as safe and efficient as possible. Creating walkable and bikable cities and having incentives for public transportation (such as congestion charges in city centers, etc) is a separate task that must be undertaken regardless of whether cars have autopilots or not...

Via Google, NYT

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Tags: Transportation

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