Google Knows Best: Taking the “Person” Out of “Personal Transportation”

By Charles Krome

About two weeks ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt came out with his vision for the future of the automotive industry. Noting that “It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars,” Schmidt took this to its logical conclusion by flatly stating that “Your car should drive itself.”

Another unrealistic pronouncement from the kind of folks who once expected us to be driving flying cars by now? Unfortunately, no. In fact, it turns out that Google has a small fleet of “automated cars”—Toyota Priuses, of course—that already has racked up more than 140,000 miles of driverless driving out in California and Nevada. The vehicles are part of the company’s efforts to “help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.”

That’s according to Google software engineer Sebastian Thrun, who was blogging about the program over the weekend. The short story in Thrun’s words: “So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. … Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to ‘see’ other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.”

(Note that from a current safety standpoint, the California Highway Patrol was aware of the testing—although it was kept secret from the public—and each car still had a “trained safety driver” behind the wheel with a “trained software operator” riding shotgun.)

Needless to say, Gearhead Nation is not amused.

And regardless, in an environment in which people have driven to their deaths while following their nav systems’ GPS directions, I’m not so sure the technology needed for computers to take full control of a vehicle’s operation will be ready any time soon. Also, practically speaking, if a situation occurs that requires sudden human intervention, the human inside one of these automated cars is likely to be too busy texting or talking on the phone to make a difference.

Then there’s the whole “personal liberties” problem. If I want to drive my own car and doing so does not, in fact, harm anyone else, what right does the government have to say I can’t—even if I may be at a higher risk for injury myself? After all, people today have plenty of dangerous hobbies, from skydiving to bungee jumping. Should we make those illegal, too?

Consider this, too: Another way Google could improve driving safety could be by preventing Google-based digital devices from operating in motor vehicles and cutting back on its partnerships aimed at bringing more customer-distracting technology to today’s cars and trucks.

I wonder what Mr. Schmidt would say to that?

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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1 Comment

  1. I want no part of this, but I fear there will come a time in the future when I won’t have the choice.

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