Here is some Q&A around the hype over “self driving cars”, a technology that has gotten a great deal of attention.
Q: When will we have self driving cars?
A distinction has to be made between “self driving” and autonomous, self driving cars. We have, at the present, some of the advanced features of “smart cars”, cars that have lane departure warning systems, radar to automatically brake if your car is approaching another too fast, etc.
Autonomous means that you could summon a car with your smartphone and it would arrive to convey you somewhere you wanted to go. There are many, many questions to be answered, many of them not technological in nature, before autonomous cars could operate, even if they were confined to crowded areas like city centers. These questions could take decades to resolve.
Q: Is the talk of self driving cars mainly hype?
If the vision is a car that comes to your house or office by itself, picks you up and deposits you at your destination, the answer is there is more hype than truth in that vision as of right now. If the idea is a car that can assist a driver, a driver who is also alert and aware, in avoiding crashes, the answer is no, it is not mainly hype. No one has yet to answer how a self driving car, even when it could take over the major part of the driving effort, would be handled without a driver ready to take over the controls.
Q: Why do you say self driving, autonomous cars could be decades away?
Consider the issue of responsibility or liability in the event of a crash or, worse, death. This is not a minor issue. If you call and car and its runs over people, are you therefore responsible? The computer programmer? The maker of the car? The person who was dumb enough to step in front of the car?
Who would make a decision to take over a car in an emergency? Who would operate the car if robbers stood in front and in back to stop it automatically? Will there be bullet proof windows? If car car is programmed to handle normal driving situations in an urban area, how does it handle a fire truck rushing at two times the normal speed and through a red light? Can a car be programmed to react properly to hydroplaning? This seems unlikely. A car that “automatically” kills 50 or 100 people a year would be viewed with great suspicion by the public.
Q: If there are so many inherent problems with self driving cars, why are so many high tech companies willing to invest millions, or hundreds of millions, in developing them?
First, no one wants to be left at the starting gate when whatever is coming takes off. Supplying parts and computer systems to cars is a multi-billion dollar business that spans the globe. With a company like Google taking the lead, no one can afford to hang back, or at least that is the judgment they have made. Besides this, what if there were to be a complete revolution in personal transportation coming from this? Who would be willing to be left out? Even small changes can mean hundreds of millions in profit. Even now, cars contain far more computers and software than was used on many space flights, including trips to the moon.
Q: Are smart cars taking attention away from other systems?
Yes. Smart highways could be an important development along with smarter cars. The assumption generally, however, is that building smart highways could cost hundreds of billions in tax dollars, whereas smart cars would be paid for by those who own them.
Q: What are smart highways?
This would be a system where information from other cars, and yours, is fed into a data bank and shared with all the cars in a given section. If a fire truck is rushing down a street, your car would know about it before you and perhaps slow down (or suggest you do so) or tell you to pull over in advance of the fire truck getting them. A smart highway could warn you of impending dangers and help you avoid traffic back-ups. The combination of smart highways and smart cars would be truly futuristic and hard to beat.
Q: Why is Google investing so much in the concept?
You’d have to ask them. To some degree, they might simply be trying to demonstrate their ability to think big and move beyond Internet search. To some degree, it could just be that someone in the company convinced management to spend millions on the concept. (They’ve got a lot of money, massive piles of money, just sitting around. This is a company with its own 747 aircraft.) It could be they are just showing off, good PR, in the hopes that something could come from it. Anyone who says that they are bound, no matter what, to make billions from this in the next decade or two is delusional. Google is taking a big risk, yeah, but for them it isn’t that big (they aren’t, or haven’t yet, committed to doing anything and they aren’t marketing a smart car).
Doug Terry, 12.26.14