Has technology become so advanced that we are now able to place an unmanned vehicle onto the streets? Google seems to think so. The tech giant recently released news of its newest prototype — a self-driving car. The first of it’s kind, Google designed the vehicle with no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal.
How Does It Function?
You may be wondering how a car without a driver can manage to safely transport passengers from one place to another without any collisions or human injuries. The Google car is powered by an electric motor with around a 100-mile range, but only travels at a speed of 25 mph. The front of the car is equipped with a large foam bumper and a flexible windscreen in order to ensure minimal impact in the case of a collision.
The car uses high-tech sensors and software combined with highly accurate digital maps to locate itself. A GPS is used as well as point radar, lasers and cameras that monitor the car’s 360-degree surroundings.
The advanced software recognizes objects, other cars, people, road signs and traffic lights. The car obeys the rules of the road and the software even accounts for unexpected hazards, such as bicyclists in the road. Another sophisticated feature of the Google car is that it can detect road work sites and safely navigate around them.
The car accommodates two passengers and operates without any user interaction aside from a start button, and if necessary, a big red emergency stop button. The car is summoned to pick up passengers by a request sent on a smartphone with the user’s location and destination request.
The dashboard projects a screen that shows the current speed of the car, and once the journey is finished, it displays a message to remind the passengers to take their personal belongings. Google’s self-driving car isn’t designed to replace your personal car just yet. The current goal is for the vehicle to serve as a taxi driver, a designated driver, or a shared family car.
Current projections suggest that the driverless car is at least five years away from being perfected and tested well enough to create a non-prototype product for sale or hire. Google says the testing of the cars will take more than two years. By that point, technology will have advanced and there may be other additions to add to the product that may require further testing.
What are the Pros and Cons of a Self-Driving Car?
In the United States, more than 33,000 people die each year from automobile crashes. Of these crashes, about 40 percent of the fatalities are caused by alcohol, drugs, fatigue or distractions like texting or fuddling with the radio. Letting technology take the wheel could save lives. Google cars would also help those who are currently not allowed to drive: teens under 16, the elderly, the disabled, people on certain medications, etc.
Furthermore, self-driving cars could greatly impact the environment by reducing the demand for fossil fuel. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that reduction in wind drag from cars being able to travel closer together could reduce fuel usage up to 30 percent. It would also reduce the amount of gasoline wasted in crowded urban areas where drivers circle blocks looking for parking.
Another way self-driving cars could be more efficient is by having the ability to go much farther on a single battery charge. This could spark an electric car craze, again, enabling saving on fuel use.
Studies have shown that if just 10 percent of vehicles on the road were driverless, the United States could save over $37 billion annually due to less fuel consumption, fewer accidents, fewer deaths etc.
So why isn’t the self-driving car on the market yet?
Aside from the need for further testing, there are negative implications that could come from this new innovation.
The United States has around 233,000 taxi drivers and chauffeurs and 1.7 million truck drivers. If self-driving cars become a hit and continue to develop, many of these jobs could be replaced by robots, leaving thousands of people unemployed.
There are also legalities that need to be resolved. The first accident that’s caused by a technological malfunction will spark a controversy to say the least. Who will be held responsible for any possible damages, injuries or even deaths? There are external factors that need to be determined before the car can be released to the public.
What’s comforting to know, however, is that in the current testing processes, if a robotic driver gets confused about something and the human controller has to take over, the Google X team uses each occurrence to improve the artificial intelligence in the computer system. In order to remove the human driver permanently, engineers must produce better algorithms that fail less often.
It’s important to emphasize that as of now, Google’s self-driving car is just a prototype. There is a great need for improvement in the current technology before the vehicle can hit the market. But when that day arrives, the decision to trust artificial intelligence for transportation will be left up to the individual.