How do I drive? – I dunno, Google it!

You know that it is nearing submission time when I suddenly post boatloads, in the same way that you know something special has hit the stream of consciousness when many publications suddenly all talk about the one thing.

Two pieces of news that had flooded my RSS feeds more frequently than any other in the last two days are: Watch_Dog reviews, and this new driverless Google car that has been put properly on the table as a working prototype. Since all I seem to talk about are video games, let’s go with the latter.

So, what is it? And what does it look like?

You look like a dweeb, but you will look like one while doing nothing at all. Image courtesy of The Guardian and Google.

This piece of engineering and computing genius has enough space for two people, and reaches a top speed of 25mph, or ~40km/hr.

Basically, it’s aimed towards people who didn’t want to get anywhere in the first place.

Alright, enough skepticism. The fact is, this car really drives itself. How does it do that?

Driverless car

The Google car contains “no steering wheel, no pedals and no brakes”, and relies on a sensor mounted on top (yeah, that thing that looks like a blender) to “see” where it’s going.

It also has newer and better sensors that give it the ability to see what’s going on up to a distance of two football fields. For example, on the most current version of the retrofitted self-driving Lexus, a mounted laser has about a 12-degree field of view that it uses to essentially zoom in on details of points of interest. On the prototype car, the lasers have full 360-degree views. “It’s going from looking just in front, like a flashlight, to a lantern all around the car,” said self-driving car project director Chris Urmson.

Re/code

Of course, that explains why its top speed is so slow. Having said that, 25mph is the average safe speed for driving in most American cities, and while it’s unfeasible here on bigger and busier Australian roads, 40 km/h is probably a good speed to drive around in the suburbs. The car is also made with lots of foam and safety materials to ensure that a crash, should it ever occur, would hurt a lot less.

What’s it like in there?

I think this video sums it up perfectly.

The testers all seem very happy with their experience, although it must be noted most of them seem to treat it as a rollercoaster ride. I wonder what would happen if in real practise, the driver suddenly decides to stop at a Maccas drive-thru? Or they get a message to go pick someone else up suddenly? I suppose on-board GPS would be so good by this time that they just need to speak “let’s go to McDonalds” and the car will pick the nearest one and drive to it, but I still feel like it takes away from the spontaneity of manually driving around.

Safety

The most important issue is obviously safety. The fact that there is close to no way for a human to interrupt the machine and take over, save for an emergency stop button, can be a problem.

The controls are needed to comply with the law in California which along with Nevada and Florida allows autonomous vehicles but only if a driver can take charge.

The Guardian

And with technology such as these making their way into the mainstream use, sooner or later laws will have to reflect the changes. Perhaps jumpy technophobes will push for laws to stop complete automation. I think, maybe, the problem lies in the way we think about safety, being that we always regard it as something that we need to prevent from not happening instead of something that we act to let happen. But, that’s an issue for another debate.

The main thing is, as the project director pointed out, having a human suddenly wrench themselves into control can be even more dangerous: have you ever had someone grab your steering wheel suddenly while driving? Doesn’t end well, does it?

The cool factor

I don’t think that having a little golf cart cupcake car is going to make you look cool, but if this is the direction that vehicular travel will head, then obviously a prototype from one manufacturer won’t dictate the eventual norm. Still, imagine trying to do burn-outs in one of those babies!

The really cool part is you really can drive and not-drive, text and not-drive, etc etc. That can change the landscape of traffic laws almost entirely, since things like rear-ending and side-swiping would end up being the issue with manufacturers, not the individual driver.

“Hey, this guy was on his phone when he crashed into me!”

“Well, what do you want me to do? I did call 911 as we were crashing to get a head-start!”

Alex

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