Burkhard Bilger got inside the secretive Google X lab and reports back on the search giant's effort to build a self-driving car.
The Google car has now driven more than half a million miles without causing an accident-about twice as far as the average American driver goes before crashing. Of course, the computer has always had a human driver to take over in tight spots. Left to its own devices, Thrun says, it could go only about fifty thousand miles on freeways without a major mistake. Google calls this the dog-food stage: not quite fit for human consumption. "The risk is too high," Thrun says. "You would never accept it." The car has trouble in the rain, for instance, when its lasers bounce off shiny surfaces. (The first drops call forth a small icon of a cloud onscreen and a voice warning that auto-drive will soon disengage.) It can't tell wet concrete from dry or fresh asphalt from firm. It can't hear a traffic cop's whistle or follow hand signals.
And yet, for each of its failings, the car has a corresponding strength. It never gets drowsy or distracted, never wonders who has the right-of-way. It knows every turn, tree, and streetlight ahead in precise, three-dimensional detail. Dolgov was riding through a wooded area one night when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. "I was thinking, What the hell? It must be a bug," he told me. "Then we noticed the deer walking along the shoulder." The car, unlike its riders, could see in the dark. Within a year, Thrun added, it should be safe for a hundred thousand miles.
America's legal system will make it difficult for self-driving cars to be accepted here...while not a legal kerfuffle yet, see Tesla's current difficulties w/r/t fire risk in electric cars for a taste of what's to come with self-driving cars. Europe is more likely...someplace like Holland or Denmark. They take their public and personal transportation seriously over there.
Brad Templeton imagines how the design of cars and other transportation systems might change with widespread use of driverless cars. I especially like the robocar used as a mobile office or a place to get a good night's sleep as you travel from one place to the other.
The in-car environment will become more of a work and entertainment space than just a travel space. Passengers will expect things like a screen, a keyboard, and a desk. Passengers may wish to face one another (though not all are comfortable riding backwards.)
Quiet will be a very important consideration, though passengers will be allowed to wear headphones if desired, unlike drivers today.
The smooth ride (especially on the highway) of a robocar may generate demand for cars for night-travel, while the passengers sleep. Such vehicles might aim to make a trip last 8 hours rather than make the fastest possible trip, and as such would be much more energy efficient for such trips.
(This also requires a very low crash rate, as seat belts don't work as well on flat beds.)
My guess is that the first big market for driverless cars will not be the US but somewhere smaller, more urban, and more used to experimentation with alternate modes of transportation. (via the atlantic)
Driverless cars is the type of innovation that may have unanticipated consequences. Sure, you can read Twitter while you're being spirited around by your robotic car, but driverless cars may also end private car ownership. And what will intersections look like when used exclusively by driverless cars? Perhaps a little like this:
"There would be an intersection manager," Stone says, "an autonomous agent directing traffic at a much finer-grain scale than just a red light for one direction and a green light for another direction."
Because of this, we won't need traffic lights at all (or stop signs, for that matter). Traffic will constantly flow, and at a rate that would probably unnerve the average human driver.
I wonder how people will abuse or have fun with driverless cars. Driver- and passenger-less car joyrides? Will they be hackable and if so, dangerous?
In a short essay about The Unintended Effects of Driverless Cars (like the kind being tested by Google), Koushik Dutta guesses at what they might mean for the future of transportation.
Currently, a car spends 96% of its time idle. Compare that with planes which spend almost their entire lifetime in operation/airborne. Idle planes aren't making money, and they need to recoup their hefty $120M price tag. There is an unforgiving economic incentive to make sure it is always in use.
The proliferation of driverless cars will have a similar effect. Cars will spend less time idle: why would a household buy 2 (or even 3) cars, when they only need 1? Ride to work, then send the car home to your spouse. Need to go grocery shopping, but your kid also needs a ride to a soccer game? No problem, a driverless car can handle that.
Most people don't need cars most of the time but pay for the convenience of having one nearby when they do. Schedule-able on-demand driverless cars could eliminate that need, with the added bonus of expanding effortlessly to fit current capacity (e.g. imagine a family of four needing to go in four different directions at four different times...just schedule four Hertz Driverless pickups from your phone). Of course, people said similarish things about the Segway...