Saturday, October 16, 2010

International Herald Tribune: Google Car that Drives Itself through Traffic

Quite recently my father has been collecting some regular black and white newspapers to read. Most of them are international since my father travels a lot. A lot of the time I just glance through them but a particular article in the Herald Tribune (international version of the New York Times) caught my eye. Google was the word that I saw first. Thinking it would be some other mad world-wide web invention such as Chrome I was about to move on. That's when I read the first word: car. I was astounded that I eagerly read on. And this article was nothing short of eye-opening and amazing. A vehicle that drives itself through traffic... Who would have thought that Google could come up with something like that!

On second thoughts, I've always thought of Google as the new-age entrepreneur, trying to decipher life's great mysteries and help any bystander along the way. Although these autonomous cars are years from mass production (at least 10) it does not deny the fact that the company is thinking ahead and expanding into new territories. A Toyota Prius made a journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles through the torrential traffic virtually unaided by any human source. The scientific reason for this achievement is artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.

According to Google engineers robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated. It does seem like a dream come true doesn't it? Especially for truck drivers I bet. Now you can really go to the back seat to make yourself a sandwich. Of course supposedly there must always be someone behind the wheel in case of an unexpected detour (the original test encountered a biker running a red light). But this was one occasion on a half an hour test drive so there is no cause for worry.

“Can we text twice as much while driving, without the guilt?” Dr. Thrun (43-year-old director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a Google engineer and the co-inventor of the Street View mapping service. ) said in a recent talk. “Yes, we can, if only cars will drive themselves.” 
The car knows the speed limit, roads and everything else geographical from the GPS system and its driving mode can even be programmed from aggressive (more likely to go first) or cautious (more likely to yield the road to another car). I wonder who will really choose the cautious personality. I don't think there are many such people.

The most problematic thing about this project is driving laws. Who will be liable in case of an accident: the driver or the car? Although this particular test drive was considered legal because there was still a driver behind the wheel, in the future some of these laws may have to change. There is even the farther-off prospect of cars that do not need anyone behind the wheel. That would allow the cars to be summoned electronically, so that people could share them.

Although the situation is not perfect as with any situation Google does have an opportunity to shine once again. If it decides to further develop this technology and then afterwards sell it as a prototype to any car manufacturer it will profit immensely. Such was the case with the Android operating system for cell phones.
Whatever the circumstances will be Google is sure to perform the best it can and "drive" us all to another new technological era.