I passed my driving test nearly four years ago, yet have barely been in a car since. The reason being that I am one of those nervy drivers – uncomfortable to find myself in all-powerful position of being a Londoner hooting at the latest unfortunate individual to hit the city’s streets, and also perturbed by the prospect of driving and map-reading. A pathetic case of the useless female driver unravelling. As such, I have ended up venting my transport frustrations at TFL instead, and excitedly anticipating the development of the self-driving, private vehicle (hello Google…).
For the last two years Google have been working on a project that enables a near totally blind person to drive. It has created an automated car that uses both radar and laser sensors to detect its immediate surroundings and make decisions with regard to every aspect of driving – in theory leaving the driver at ease. Although whether this calls for a feet up on the dashboard, drink in hand and phone at ear is another matter. Thus far, the self-driving automobile has now completed over 200,000 miles of computer-led highway driving and some urban navigation manoeuvres, but its full capabilities and limitations remain unknown – perhaps too futuristic a notion to contemplate. Essentially there exists some anxiety over the thought of other peoples’ cars being driverless, even if, somewhat paradoxically, you remain content for your own car to do the same.
However, according to Google and the informed folk at PSFK the automated car presents a breadth of benefits –
1) The potential to give independence back to individuals with disabilities.
2) A mass of cost-reducing implications for both individuals and governments with the opportunity to scale. For example – helping to increase the capacity and efficiency of existing roadways by enabling cars to drive closer together without incident, generating more efficient travel routes, effectively decongesting urban arteries, and cutting back on CO2 emissions as well as the amount of money spent on fuel. No mean feat as Sebastian Thrun, the project’s lead at Google, puts it – the Google-driven car could save Americans 4 billion hours of wasted time and 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline.
3) Insight for future urban planning as the data collected from a fleet of automated cars could inform future investments in infrastructure. For instance, provided with a comprehensive view of the bandwidth of roads in their cities, planners could anticipate where new construction is needed or where infrastructure might fall into disuse.
I say, idealistic or not, sci-fi or “say hi”, Google smugness or hype, let’s get this car on the road…