Google's self-driving car hits the road this summer

google car on the road
© Google via Designboom

The cute little Isetta-like google cars are hitting the streets of Mountain View this summer. They are not quite the car as Google designed it; they have steering wheels and brakes just in case, at the insistence of the authorities. Sergey Brin describes what's happening at a press conference, attended by Eric Jaffe of Citilab:

I know it sounds cliché, but safety is job one. I think as far as this project goes, once we sort of deal with safety, we want to really think about what's the transportation experience we're providing. And not having to have a driver gives a lot of new possibilities in terms of what people can do with their time, in terms of how to organize these vehicles, where they should be at different times, how to make really efficient use of space on the roads—and so forth. It's a world of possibilities.

According to Jaffe, the Google car can now distinguish police cars, joggers, hand signs from traffic cops, and the fact that "occasionally people make terrible decisions—turning right from the far left lane, for instance, or running a red light—and is on alert for them." They have been running them on a closed course on an old air force base and it is pretty impressive:

We saw this coming down the road too: Self-driving cars replacing transit

However the scariest note in Jaffe's long article comes when he talks to Project Director Chris Urmson of Google about the future:

You can imagine if these vehicles could work, and they're in the community, that they're going to find their way in, either shared between individuals or shared by an entity that's owning a fleet of them. It may be that eventually things like metro transit authorities start buying these instead of buses. … If you can get these vehicles and they're inexpensive and you don't have to pay the same amount of up-front capital because they're smaller and you don't have to pay to operate them, you can have a much better transit service.

This is something that has worried many. Self-driving cars have already been used by some as an excuse to stop transit programs and kill light rail. Jarrett Walker discussed this and noted:

Republicans talking about driverless cars are talking exclusively about the interests of their own outer-suburban constituents, who tend to live in places that are unsuited to transit. In their Republican-only echo chamber, in which only Republicans count as citizens or even as valued economic units, they are right.

Now that the Google car is getting so much closer we are going to see a lot more of this kind of thinking.

Google's self-driving car hits the road this summer
These may be limited to 25 MPH, but the era of autonomous cars is coming at us really fast.

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