Nervous parents of teenage drivers and those fearful of combustible road rage roadsters will certainly appreciate what had otherwise seemed to be a Jetsons technology: self-driving automobiles.
Google announced on Oct. 10 that it has developed cars that use artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions of a human driver. Seven of these prototypes have been tested over the last several months on streets and highways throughout California with resounding success.
The vehicles have thus far been tested with a driver behind the wheel only in case of a computer mishap and a technician in the passenger seat for monitoring the navigation system. The cars have already driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with occasional human control, according to Google.
The only accident, according to Googles engineers, was when one prototype was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.
The goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up peoples time and reduce carbon emissions, wrote project leader Sebastian Thrun on Googles corporate blog.
As recently as last month, Google has been hinting that transportation is the next great frontier for computers. In a speech Sept. 29 at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said, Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense.
Googles robot drivers can react far quicker than humans and have 360-degree perception which is never distracted by cell phones, music, alcohol or fatigue. The technology could significantly alter the inherent danger on Americas roadways. More than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008 alone.
According to Googles engineers, its self-driving technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing more cars to drive safer while closer together. Because these automated cars would be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, thereby reducing fuel consumption.
Google further explained its technology in a blog post on its corporate site: Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to see other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Googles data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.
Googles self-driving cars are estimated to be eight years away from mass production, but its inevitability could signal a series of significant social changes. Passengers in the front seat will suddenly have more idle time to be filled with reading, movies, commercials and various other distractions, all of which Google is more than able to provide.
There are other hurdles to consider as well. Driving laws have been established under the assumption that humans were operating their vehicle. How does that change when computers are the primary drivers?
Though Google emphasizes that this technology is still very much in its experimental phase, it offers a very real glimpse into what transportation will look like. And it might only take years, not decades, to come to realization.