Would You Drive a Car that Drives Itself?
Would you trust yourself with a robot—like Total Recall's Johnny Cab—behind the wheel? Image via cracked.com.

Would you trust a robot in control of the driver's seat? Image of Total Recall's "Johnny Cab" via cracked.com.

Google’s wheels are spinning again. Earlier this month, the company made headlines with its $1 million investment in Shweeb’s bicycle monorail, and now, the company is venturing into the car business.

Last week, Google announced its new technology for cars that drive themselves: “Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office [about 350 miles] and on to Hollywood Boulevard…All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.” (Read all about the typical Google-powered 60 mile-per-hour ride in a Toyota Prius equipped with radar, video, motion sensors, a GPS device and a screen that displays a three-dimensional map of the surrounding scenery in The New York Times.)

The goal of the driverless cars is to “help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use,” Google says. But what about the idea of avoiding car use altogether?

THE APPEAL OF THE “FOURTH SCREEN”

As other bloggers have pointed out, Google may have ulterior motives. “Google says its major motivation is road safety. But there could be another imperative at work,” writes Paul Marks at NewScientist. “The tech industry needs a fresh market to address after TV, computers and cellphones – and the car is being seen as that ‘fourth screen.’ Make sure the driver has nothing to do, and you’ve got a willing subject who’s able to interact with a raft of lucrative in-car apps and search tools.”

It actually makes good business sense for Google. “What if the 52 minutes per day that Americans spend commuting could be spent searching Google, watching Google TV, and using Gmail, all provided with Google advertising. That would be a pretty penny, and it’s making money the Internet way,” writes Mitch Wagner for ComputerWorld.

Enriching digital connectivity for drivers will only encourage people to spend more time—and travel more miles—in their personal vehicles. What if we could take that same interactivity of Google’s artificial intelligence software and apply it to bicycles, public buses and trains, to entice people out of their cars?

It’s not like companies haven’t tried before. Back in 2007, the Royal College of Art  and Capoco Design unveiled a driverless bus at the London Science Museum. The electric/bio-fuel hybrid bus is equipped with satellite navigation and intelligent cruise control to manage speed and avoid traffic. The bus is guided by magnets embedded in the road that serve as markers. Passengers can hail the bus with their mobile phones. It goes without saying: The technology never caught on.

On the non-motorized front, The Copenhagen Wheel, created by MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, seems like a good alternative. The bicycle is controlled through your smart phone and has a sensing unit built into the wheel that provides real-time information on road conditions, congestion and air pollution.

DANGERS AHEAD?

There’s no denying that the scope of the road safety problem is huge and Google deserves credit for trying to find a solution. The World Health Organization estimates that road traffic crashes kill 1.2 million people each year. But relying on car-oriented technology to deal with a dangerous epidemic that is caused by cars in the first place seems like the start of a never-ending dilemma. Wouldn’t it be better to shift people into public transit? Or make communities more walkable?

On the one hand, we have entered an era of raising public awareness to end distracted driving; on the other hand, we continue to create opportunities to be more distracted. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spoke out against car manufacturers who keep adding interactive devices to their vehicles, like General Motors’ OnStar system that allows updates to Facebook or Ford’s SYNC technology that allows for hands-free calling and music selection. The new in-car “infotainment” systems seem to serve as a tactic to lure more young people into the driver’s seat (since many of them are avoiding car ownership.) “It’s just common sense to put safety before entertainment,” Lahood writes in his blog. “Why not use these advances in innovation to decrease distraction-related deaths and injuries instead of multiplying the opportunities for driver distraction?”

Google engineers claim that its robot cars will reduce crashes, but a recent test drive covered by The New York Times revealed an instance when the driver had to override the computer-controlled system on two occasions: “once when a bicyclist ran a red light and again when a car in front stopped and began to back into a parking space.” Good thing the human back-up driver was alert and ready to take control.

Google’s latest foray into automobile technology also brings up a lot of thorny legal questions: “Under current law, a human must be in control of a car at all times, but what does that mean if the human is not really paying attention as the car crosses through, say, a school zone, figuring that the robot is driving more safely than he would?” The New York Times writes. “And in the event of an accident, who would be liable — the person behind the wheel or the maker of the software?”

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