Google has built a fleet of cars that drive themselves.
Driving cars has gotten a lot easier thanks to Google Maps, and now thank to the Google steering wheel and the Google gas pedal too. The search engine megasite just announced that it has been testing its new robot car, which drives, parks, and gets around traffic without the pesky interference of a driver. They’ve put the “auto” back in automobile, using GPS, video cameras, radar, and computers for a smooth driving experience, on highways and around town.
It’s not just a theoretical product either. Google’s self-driving cars have already covered 140,000 miles in test runs so far, with only very minimal human intervention. It has even covered 1,000 miles without any intervention at all. In all that time, there was only one accident. The car got rear-ended at a traffic stop by a human driver. The robot car itself drove cautiously—though Google also says that it can be programmed to reflect the personality of the human occupants of the “non-driver’s seat,” whether it’s overly cautious or a tad aggressive.
What are the advantages of the robot car? For one, robots are not distracted by external stimuli, whether it is a cell phone, the aftereffects of an office holiday party, or more sluggish responses due to old age. They react more quickly, and, with the proper cameras and radar, have no blind spots. In other words, the robot cars have eliminated all of the major causes of traffic accidents. This, in turn, means that they can be built lighter—there is no need for a massive steel contraption to compete for highway space—and in turn, use less energy to move the car along. And they can drive more closely to other cars, meaning that highways will have more space. In fact, Google engineers estimate that the self-driving Google cars could double the capacity of our existing roads. Traffic jams could be a thing of the past.
There are, however, some legal issues that must be resolved first, in a classic case of the law falling far behind technology. If an accident does occur, who is ultimately responsible: the non-driver, or Google itself because of a flaw in the operating system? Bernard Lu, Senior Staff Counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, says that the cars should be considered legal because the occupants still have the possibility of overriding the system. From a legal perspective, the non-driver is actually the driver.