Just prior to Christmas, Google unveiled the ready to drive (sort of) version of its self-driving car. Though it may look cartoonish, it’s a vehicle that puts function over form — the embodiment of “car as tool” thinking.
The Google car isn’t meant to handle well or be fun to drive. In fact, it’s not meant to be driven at all, for the most part. It’s a self-driving car, similar to other projects we’ve seen from Nissan, General Motors, Audi and other car companies, and as such, it’s basically a technological tour de force of systems that are meant to take the human error out of driving.
The automotive world is already experienced with technology such as lane keeping assist (which helps keep the car within a designated lane and steer it back in if it starts to stray) and automated braking (which in some cases will bring a car to a complete stop if a driver doesn’t respond in time to audible and visual warnings).
Cars can even steer themselves into parking spots and Nissan has already demonstrated a car that can leave its occupants at the entrance to a restaurant, for example, go off and find its own parking spot, and then return at the owner’s beck and call from a Smartphone. And technology is nearing launch that will have a car interact with other vehicles, pedestrians and road infrastructure to make streets safer for everybody.
As such, it’s not a far stretch for a car to drive itself under certain conditions, but to have a company like Google be the first to potential hit the mass market is an automotive coup, of sorts. The car is expected on California roads (California is one of a handful of states that have enacted legislation to allow autonomous driving) within a year.
To grasp the notion that a technology company is the first to market such a car, we have to realize that the Google car is not so much a vehicle as a suite of technology. It just happens to be a suite of technology that is mobile and aware of its environment. Then you have to cast aside all the recent automotive propaganda about new vehicles being built “around the driver.” The Google car is built around the premise that a car doesn’t need a driver.
That’s radical thinking in the auto industry and a recent Business Insider story goes one further and suggests the industry may soon be turned topsy-turvy for several reasons: (1) vehicles are regenerated every four to five years, as advances in technology warrant new builds and, often, new bodies and/or platforms, but Google is constantly updating its technology, so the car will theoretically never be out of date; (2) it travels at city speed limits, and if a world of autonomous driving keeps to those limits, there is really no need for the driving dynamics required for emergency manoeuvring; and, (3) there are fewer mechanical components to break down and when they do, they are easily repaired or swapped out, taking money out of the repair industry.
The one big hurdle the Google car faces, though, is the legal system. Most notably, who’s to blame if things go catastrophically wrong and cars start crashing (and people in them start getting injured).
Among the issues legislators have to address are; who regulates the industry to make sure every car is safe to travel the roads? What happens in the case of software glitches or hacking that lead to crashes? Does there have to be licensed driver in the vehicle at all times? Or even, if the car drives itself, is there a need for licensed drivers at all?
The New York Times’ Law Blog quotes personal injury lawyer Eric Turkewitz as stating: “The issue of lawsuits regarding the cars will, I think, be vastly overwhelmed by a huge reduction in collisions that result from the most common forms of human error.
“Each year about 30,000 people will die in the U.S. from car crashes, and about two million are injured,” he continues. “And what will those newfangled cars do? They will see the other cars/pedestrians and slow down or stop despite the driver being lost in thought. Or drunk. Or asleep.
“With human error crashes reduced by software that automatically stops or slows the car, the number of broken bodies and cars will be reduced. Your insurance premiums will be (theoretically) reduced,” he concludes.
The NYT blog entry concludes that federal safety regulators say there is more research needed into the potential safety and benefits of autonomous technology.