Apr 4, 2012Science and Technology
Driverless cars take a step forward

Toyota Prius modified to operate as a Google driverless car

Google’s work on the first marketable self-driving car continued this week with a bold new experiment -- Google’s self-driving Prius piloted a legally blind man to his destination. This is a powerful reminder that the possibilities of high-tech are more than just a sound bite on business news. Google isn’t the only company working on a self-driving or autonomous car, but they are one of the most serious in the field. The company’s self-directed cars are part of Google’s innovation lab, Google X, which is itself an attempt by Google to expand its market penetration and disruption beyond search engines and advertising.

While the innovation lab’s work is kept under tight wraps, the self-directed car is one of the most famous projects to come out of Mountain View since the search engine was perfected. Google is one of the first companies to invest fully into the technology, seeing ambitious potential that goes far beyond the mere 'it can be done' mentality.

Many of the potential benefits of a self-directed car are interesting and offer the tantalizing possibility of a radically altered transit system in the United States. Proponents of self-driving cars believe they will lead to fewer accidents, more parking and less traffic with more vehicles on the road. Still, the recent experiment with Google having the self-directed car drive a blind man explores the potential of opening personal transportation to the disabled.

A monitor in the back seat displays sensor readings and other information in a driverless car at Stanford UniversityThe market is there: Think of how much easier your morning commute would be if you could sit back and read the paper while your car piloted you where you needed to go. Further, there are a number of applications for self-directed cars beyond the disabled. Children can be driven around in these cars where they need to go. Getting to and from a bar for a night of debauch will be safer and easier than ever. Many people who just hate driving would throw down the extra cash to not have to drive themselves. Hate parking your car in a city? It’s no problem with a self-directed car, which can easily drive itself home after dropping you off at your destination.

Still, there’s one massive problem with bringing this innovative technology to market: Self-driven cars are illegal almost everywhere in the United States. Nevada is currently the only state in the union with an autonomous car law, though this only calls upon the state DMV to create standards for the vehicles. For those of us living in the other 49 states, we’re going to have to wait for the legal atmosphere to change before we can even think about owning one. This puts the innovation in a sort of Catch-22 territory: People won’t get autonomous cars until they can legally use them, and the laws are unlikely to change as long as no one is utilizing the technology.

Junior, a robotic Volkswagen Passat parked at Stanford UniversityEven if driverless cars never make it to market, the world is getting some useful technology out of them. Vehicular communications systems are part and parcel of driverless car technology. They often offer a quantum leap in vehicular technology that can bring us many of the side benefits of driverless cars, such as fewer accidents, less traffic and easier parking, without having to totally invest our faith in a car to pilot us around. 

Currently, the technology that exists is far ahead of the laws. But the infrastructure is there -- the cars can drive themselves along existing roads. While people might be afraid of the technology, so too were the masses afraid of the 'horseless carriage' in years gone by. As more firms create more driverless cars, more consumers will opt for them and more states will find ways to integrate them into a world of traditional, manually operated cars. Once a critical mass is reached, look for driverless cars to go from a curiosity to something we can’t imagine living without. 

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