A Brave New World for Driverless Cars

In 2012, Google cofounder Sergey Brin estimated that their self-driving car would be ready for commercial use in five years. Chris Urmson, head of the initiative echoed the sentiment.   It’s now two years later, and the tech guru still hopes to meet the original deadline.

However, not everyone reviewing Google’s innovations believes in the validity of the company’s claims. Are we merely a few years away from automated heaven, or is it time to quit holding our breath for a hands-free commute, and learn to fully embrace the transportation grind?

The Shortcomings of Hands-Free Vehicles

Two days ago, Slate ran an article suggesting that Google’s autonomous car may never actually happen. According to the piece, the autonomous vehicles still contain some major glitches.

For starters, the current iteration has serious issues traversing potholes and navigating in heavy rain and snow. Additionally, the car’s intense mapping system is still in need of tweaking; since the vehicles cannot function without maps, the entire nation will have to be carefully charted out (this doesn’t even include driveways, dirt paths, and grassy places to pull over) before any long-distance travel proves possible.

Furthermore, these maps will need to be updated and maintained on a regular basis in order to keep them current and safe. Even for a company with Google’s resources and reach, that's still a monumental undertaking.

Finally, the self-driving Google cruisers are insufficient at their parking skills and have difficulty responding to unexpected objects in their environment; the automated cars struggle in determining the difference between various road obstacles. (For example, the cars have difficulty determining a piece of trash from a dangerous road obstacle.)  

Are we heralding a new era before it’s technically solvent?   

According to the LA times, Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to make his city the first to provide citizens with automated “cab” transportation. Los Angeles is notorious for it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic and insufficient metro transportation. For the urban crowd, Google’s cars appear to be an obvious solution.

During a recent press conference, Garcetti told his audience his administration plans to make Westwood area a test site for the technological initiative. In the plan, riders would be able to buy a prepaid credit by using "a single app" and order an automated car service.

However, with all the aforementioned glitches in the current technology, are such proposals pipe dreams or practical?

Detroit and Google in Disagreement

Not everyone agrees with Google’s manufacturing and production strategies. According to Dailytech, In 2012, Google began meeting with Detroit automakers in hopes of teaming up for their autonomous vehicles. Apparently, Google wanted to jump right into full production, which automakers felt a gradual rollout of vehicles containing autonomous would be a better approach.

Automakers are unsure what effects these innovations would have on their already-struggling industry. Would Google effectively partner with Detroit automakers, or would the current industry be out of a job?  

Automobile manufacturers also argued that a slow and steady introduction to autonomous technology would make the public more comfortable with the new features. It’s unclear just exactly how Google’s autonomous cars would affect the economy. The future as envisioned by Google would change the way we commute, our relationship to machines, our roads, and our revenue. In a time when questions of global warming and sustainability plague all of us, it could be a welcome change. However, the full impact of such a grand-scale overhaul is unknowable.      

The Societal Impact of Autonomous Cars

The positive social implications of self-driving cars are almost unfathomable. If the technology can be perfected, the new vehicles would prevent drunk-driving accidents and practically eliminate other car accidents caused by human error. It’s also sustainable. The cars would wean an oil-dependent nation off of it’s addiction to fossil fuels, benefiting the environment.

If the cars became ubiquitous, it would allow transportation-deficient urban areas more inter-city mobility. Millennials who could not afford cars can benefit from the autonomous taxis, and the new technology could provide for the visually or physically impaired. Parents would be able to tend to busy children without having to take their eyes off the road. Employees could use the time they’d normally spend on their commute to mediate or work.

All these positive features make it tempting to imagine and even start building for an autonomous future. The question is… how far off is this version from reality?

Other Changes to the Landscape

Although our hands-free future might be decades off, it isn’t stopping city planners and think-tank experts like Randal O’Toole from envisioning what that world might look like. According to his estimations, some changes might include the elimination of red lights, stop signs, and other familiar traffic markers. Additionally, some unexpected “negatives” include less local-government revenue from speeding ticket, less organ donation, and more closed roads.   

Ideas For a Good Cause

The buzz around Google’s innovations is understandable, and the company’s motives are nothing if not noble:

In Sebastian Thrun’s TED Talk, the Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab talks about his motivation for designing driverless vehicles. The tech guru tells his audience, “At 18, I lost my best friend to a car accident… and then I decided I’d dedicate my life to saving one million people each year.” Thrun paired his love for cars with his passion for social justice.

Truly, this focus on decreasing inequality through innovation appears to be one of Google’s major tenants.

The company’s 2014 mission statement says, “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” There’s no question the company has done that. Google and other evolving technology has already reformed the way we access information, the manner in which marketer’s target users for advertisement, and the way society reads the news. “Google it,” has become part of the lexicon.

However, privacy concerns are still associated with the company. How will autonomous vehicles access and store user information? Currently, there are more questions than answers. Nevertheless, Google’s dreaming the impossible dream and asking us to change the world by dreaming along with them.     


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