From time to time I have noted the progress being made in autonomous roadway vehicles, otherwise known as self-driving cars. Somebody recently stepped on the gas to speed it up considerably. This time, the progress took place not in a lab, but in a state legislature.
About half a decade ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored a series of highly publicized contests to develop driverless vehicles that would complete a prescribed route many miles long, including some rugged stretches representative of the kind of terrain the military might be interested in traversing.
After some embarrassing initial failures, several vehicles successfully completed the route by 2005, including one built by a team led by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun. Thrun has since become a Google Fellow, and heads that company’s efforts to develop a fleet of autonomous vehicles. This fleet has reportedly logged over 100,000 miles of driving in California traffic, which counts for a lot more miles than driving in ordinary traffic, I’m sure.
It is outside the scope of current motor vehicle laws for an unmanned car to drive down the highway, even if it drives better than your mother-in-law does. While it is not clear who would get the ticket if a cop pulled over a driverless vehicle, I’m sure he’d find a way to blame the passenger for not touching the wheel.
With advances in artificial intelligence such as Thrun and others, including researchers at Volkswagen, have made in the last few years, it looks like the technology is beginning to outpace the legal system, which is not an uncommon thing these days.
Just a couple of months ago, legislators in the state of Nevada did what Google has been asking them to do for some time. They passed a law directing the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to develop a driver’s license endorsement for autonomous vehicles. This means that as early as Mar. 1, 2012, you could take some sort of examination and get a Nevada driver’s license authorizing you to sit in a car that drives itself, and not be pulled over for DWI (Driving While Idle).
Why is Google, of all organizations, so interested in autonomous vehicles? A clue is provided by another law they asked Nevada lawmakers to pass, one that so far the legislators have hesitated to approve. This law would allow drivers of autonomous vehicles to send text messages while behind the wheel they aren’t touching.
A little item in (believe it or not) Google Answers states that “Americans collectively spend more than 500 million hours in their cars each week with an average commuting time of 80 minutes per day and growing."
Google is probably looking at those 500 million hours a week like the miners of the 1850s gold rush (also in Nevada, it turns out) looked at the Comstock Lode. Put all those folks, or even a good fraction of them, in autonomous vehicles (and give them wireless mobile internet connections provided by, for example, Motorola’s mobile phone division, which Google also purchased recently), and voilá: hundreds of millions of hours a week freed up for people to do whatever they like that will fit inside a car, including surfing the Internet and using guess what? Google! These things aren’t hard to figure out if you think about them a while.
Of course, Google’s public reasons for interest in autonomous vehicles are things like safety and convenience, and these factors are also true. But Google exists because of its bottom line, and employing some of the smartest people on the planet, they know exactly what they’re doing, and it isn’t all altruism, though that may be a useful byproduct.
I foresee bumps on the road to the general use of autonomous vehicles, though. One technical problem, I suspect, will happen when the fraction of autonomous vehicles in use gets so large that chances are good that several driverless cars, most likely made by different companies, will be seeing each other all at once.
As smart as Prof. Thrum is, it’s possible that interactions between large numbers of driverless cars will lead to some spectacular unforeseen results, not all of which will be healthy for the occupants. The danger is that a really deadly accident in which autonomous vehicles are involved could cast a black pall over the whole technology and slow down or reverse legislative approval for years.
Something similar to this happened after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents with the nuclear industry, and it has only recently partly recovered from those disasters.
A more remote but still real issue concerns those of us who, as a friend of mine once said, will insist on driving his own vehicle until they have to pry the wheel out of his cold dead fingers. Suppose the technology succeeds so well that insurance companies begin to treat it like safety glass: something that no vehicle should be allowed on the road without, and something that everybody should use.
What happens to the freedom of the road to drive your own car in your own way? What happens to motorcyclists, for Pete’s sake? An autonomous motorcycle would be like a man going on his honeymoon by proxy: it might get the job done, but it wouldn’t be near as much fun.
Fortunately, we are a long way from worrying about those kinds of problems quite yet. For me, I would be glad to be relieved of the mostly tedious, dull, and occasionally dangerous task of driving a car, at least for routine commuting purposes. And yes, I probably would surf the Internet some with the time it would free up. But I also might read a book, or nap, or pray, or do any number of other things which would not lead to immediate profits for Google. And so I say to Google: go for it!
Sources: A number of articles appeared in June following the Nevada legislature’s approval of the autonomous-vehicle license law, including one in Forbes , Geek.com , and the Huffington Post . On May 10, 2011, the New York Times  published an in-depth piece on Google’s research and lobbying efforts in this area at.
Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.