Yesterday, on their official blog, Google announced that, not only are they developing self-driving technology, they have been actively developing prototypes of self-driving vehicles. The first test drives (that weren’t just by Google employees) were conducted and they put together a video introduction:
Talking about this at GeekDad HQ, it became clear that, while we all think the possibilities are pretty awesome; whether you came down on the good or terrible side of awesome was very much an individual thing. So rather than just post one opinion and leave it at that, we decided to go for a more democratic approach. Read on for a few of our contributors’ thoughts.
Anthony Karcz – I have a secret to tell you. I watch you drive. And you are horrible at it. Every morning, I strap on a pair of shoes and hit the streets to run a few miles around my neighborhood. This morning, as I neared a congested intersection, I watched a woman in nurse’s scrubs slalom through the roundabout–one hand on the wheel, the other thumbing through something on her phone, her entire body turned to the right, eyes off the road. The morning before that, a man approaching the same roundabout in a pickup truck approximately the size of the USS Nimitz let go of the wheel, and went rummaging in his lap for a solid 5 seconds before coming back up with a cigarette. The car that he’d nearly T-ed at the intersection did not appreciate his find. We are all easily distracted monkeys. We fiddle with the radio, we check our phones, we look for change, we mop up spilled drinks–all while operating 4,000 lb. vehicles that are, more often than not, trying to occupy the same space as other 4,000 lb. vehicles. As driving has gotten easier, we have allowed ourselves to think that it doesn’t deserve the same amount of attention that it once did, when that couldn’t be farther from the truth. But rather than fight against the court of public opinion, I think it’s time that we face facts about how awful we are at driving, and let the cars save us from ourselves.
Jonathan Liu – I don’t have a daily commute—my kids go to school across the street (at least until next year) and I’m a stay-at-home dad. I do spend a bit of time driving to the grocery store or shuttling kids around to activities, but mostly I’m doing city driving. It’s tedious, and—let’s face it—being in control of the vehicle isn’t really exciting when you’re driving a minivan. Give me a car that drives itself, and I could get just a smidgen of reading done, or at least respond to emails while I’m on the road. Of course, I’ve just recently read Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse, and those self-driving cars get to be a problem when the machines rise up against humanity. But I figure I have some time before the singularity, right?
Dave Banks – I love to drive. I really and truly love it in every sense of the words. I’ve done race driving schools and grinned ear-to-ear with every tire-screaming-140-miles-an-hour-into-a-sweeping-curve the instructor urged me into, while deriving similar pleasure out of a marathon thousand-miles-in-a-day-my-butt-sure-is-numb long haul. For me, driving is therapeutic and one of my few escapes where I can completely shut out work and everything else that’s usually nagging at my mind and just concentrate on the road, the feedback the car is giving me, and the traffic around me. It is truly beautiful and wonderful, this mechanical music and adrenaline surge.
Writers often wax poetic about the draw of a full tank of gas and the freedom of the open road, and there’s something to that, especially today as we seem to lose choices and face new restrictions on a weekly basis. So, I look at Google’s autonomous goofy, four-wheeled bubbles and I want no part of it. Sure, I am fascinated by the technology behind it and I see the usefulness of such a (limited) service, but it’s not for me. The automobile is one of the greatest works of personal technology that man has ever invented. I’d like to enjoy it a little longer before it’s relegated to a sterile and boring transportation commodity.
James Floyd Kelly – While I’ve been accused many times of being an early adopter when it comes to technology, I think I’m going to be a little more reserved when it comes to self-driving cars. But even if I want one today, there are a few obstacles I can think of that would prevent it. First, they’re likely to be out of my budget anyway when they first arrive–you pay a nice premium to be first. Second, I very much doubt the first versions will be family-friendly–they’ll likely be two seaters–because if I were a car manufacturer the last thing I’d want to happen is read bad news about a family-involved accident involving self-driving vehicles. Third, spousal acceptance–while I think I could get quite comfortable riding in a robot-controlled vehicle, I know my wife and exactly how much resistance to the idea it will receive (initially). Here’s the deal–I’m quite happy letting beta testers take the wheel (*Ha*) and see what happens. I do believe that stats will back up that robot-controlled cars are much safer. As with any vehicle, it’s not my driving I’m worried about… and it’s not going to be my robot-controlled vehicle I worry about–it’s the idiots on the road that will be a major nuisance to human and robot drivers alike. Maybe in the future we’ll see judges issuing mandatory robot-driving vehicles to DUI offenders and other hazardous drivers… a nice thought, huh?
Erik Wecks – There are rumors about elevator buttons. Supposedly, none of those door-closing buttons actually work. They’re just there shining brightly to make the rider feel like they have some control over when the door shuts. I’m not sure I believe the rumors, but I want my button. I like pressing my button, even if it doesn’t do anything. So give me a car which drives itself, but leave me the steering wheel, please! Completely ignore my input when I stomp a hole in the floor as I follow six inches behind the next automated vehicle, but leave me the brake pedal. It will make me feel better… Oh, and if it’s an electric, could you pipe in the sound of a Bugatti Veyron while you’re at it? It will make me feel a teeny bit less like I’m pretending to drive a soap bubble.
Anton Olsen – I’m a huge fan of robots. Robots of all sorts, household, industrial, hobby, educational, and even driving. I’m not, however, eager to get on board a self-driving car until a lot of issues, both technical and legal, are worked out. Having programmed a lot of autonomous robots, and taught many others to do the same, I have one major concern. No matter the complexity of the driving system, it will encounter situations that it cannot handle. Default behavior in these cases could have disastrous consequences. As for the legal issues, well, I can’t even fathom what it will take to overcome those, but I know it won’t be easy.
Matt Blum – George Carlin used to say that anyone driving slower than you was an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you was a maniac. Until we can get those idiots and maniacs off the road, I don’t think self-driving cars are a very good idea–by which I mean that it’s the sort of technology that will only really work well when everyone has it. How do we get there? Maybe in steps. I’d like to see a car that has a self-drive mode that you could instantly override, the way you can with cruise control. Once enough people have those, we could start moving towards entirely self-driven cars. I do have to say that there would be one immeasurably huge benefit of having self-driven cars: no more deaths from drunk drivers or people falling asleep at the wheel.