The Future of Automobility Is (Almost) Here: Google’s Self-Driving Car

by Marc Scribner on May 18, 2012 · 7 comments

in Features, Mobility, Tech & Telecom, Zeitgeist

CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman about to take a spin in the Google car. (Photo by Marc Scribner)

This morning, CEI’s resident transportation policy junkies — General Counsel Sam Kazman and myself — had the opportunity to test-ride Google’s prototype self-driving car in downtown Washington, D.C. In October 2010, I wrote about the Google driverless car’s feat of secretly logging 140,000 miles on U.S. public roads without a single accident. Sam and I were able to ask questions about the car’s features, practical traffic concerns, and the future implications of driverless automobiles with respect to crash reduction, congestion mitigation, and air quality improvement.

Google’s car uses a wide variety of sensors that detect pedestrians, objects, and infrastructure in real time. It is the sustained rapid collection of conditions data that allows the car to slow or stop suddenly if a pedestrian enters the street, a car suddenly changes lanes or pulls away from the curb, or a lane is closed for construction or an event. It was quite impressive to see all of this happen right before our eyes.

Of course, there are still kinks to be worked out. Most small debris, say paper or a plastic bag, would not erroneously be detected as a collision threat by the Google car’s forward-mounted radar. But small metallic objects, say a discarded can of soda, potentially have a radar cross-section large enough to trigger a crash-avoidance response. This is a problem, but one Google’s engineers hope to solve in the coming years.

But these slight technical glitches should not overshadow the monumental progress robotic cars represent. Given that a computer is far more precise and subject to far fewer potential errors than a human, accident rates will plummet when these vehicles become available to consumers. While fatal crash rates have been falling thanks to improved technology (due to both vehicle and infrastructure safety improvements), the crash reductions that would result from adopting driverless technology would make past progress seem like a drop in the bucket.

CEI Land-use and Transportation Policy Analyst Marc Scribner barely containing his excitement. (Photo by Sam Kazman)

Comparatively slow human response times cause much of our congestion. For commuters alone — excluding freight delivery and other business trips — the Texas Transportation Institute estimates congestion costs the U.S. economy over $100 billion annually in wasted fuel and time. Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal “Antiplanner” O’Toole is fond of this video showing how serious congestion can form with even tiny initial driver errors, which then cascade through the system. Driverless cars would greatly mitigate if not entirely eliminate this problem if market penetration rates are high enough. Think about it: we could convert existing highway lanes to robo-car-only lanes and carry several times as many vehicles at high speeds, all spaced mere inches apart and traveling more safely than manually driven vehicles.

Another major benefit would be improved air quality, as the intensity of urban air pollution is directly tied to congested road conditions. Cars could potentially be made lighter thanks to reduced crash risk, improving fuel economy and reducing pollution output per vehicle mile traveled.

Right now, the biggest hurdles are not on the production side. Rather, it is government policy. Laws will need to be updated to reflect this new reality — and allow it to move forward. Nevada has taken the lead by explicitly legalizing driverless cars and becoming the first state to issue an autonomous license. Several other states are currently considering similar legislation.

But what of liability issues? Google does not seem too concerned, and after giving it some thought, neither am I. We already have event data recorders in new automobiles that can be used in both civil and criminal court cases to determine who or what is at fault — human or automotive system. Upgrading a car’s “black box” technology to accurately record who or what fails when it fails inside a driverless car, and then assigning liability accordingly, would not constitute a huge undertaking.

Google believes its driverless car technology could potentially be available to consumers within the decade. Let me put it this way, we can expect the roll-out of the most significant automobile technical advance since Henry Ford’s assembly line in less than 10 years! And arguably, this could be even more world-changing. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords — er, chauffeurs.

Brian B May 19, 2012 at 10:20 am

I’d be a lot more sanguine about this technology if I didn’t look at the headline right next to this one at the top of the page about the EPA.
If Obamacare makes it through SCOTUS (admittedly an open question) how will this technology not threaten to be far more overlord than chauffeur? And I don’t mean robot overlord, I mean DC busy body, ‘we’re doing it for the children” bureaucrat overlord.

Nate L May 19, 2012 at 12:54 pm

ABSOLUTELY! Let’s create just one more way to eliminate responsibility from the people!

Eldon T May 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Sure hope they’re looking at operating more than one of these in the same environment.
Big potential for interference with a bunch of these on the same block.

Marc Scribner May 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm

@Brian Mandates are a potential problem far-off, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

@Nate I’ve never really understood this opposition/skeptical reasoning. The transition away from an agricultural economy and to an industrial and now knowledge economy eliminated all sorts of previous “responsibilities,” like growing your own food to feed your family. In the same token, would you also have opposed the washing machine that liberated non-wealthy women last century from the day-long “responsibility” of household laundry?

@Eldon Based on the technology I saw, there would be no interference problems that you cite. The effectiveness of this technology actually increases when you have more of them on the road.

Matthew N May 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Hi Marc

Thanks for the link to our site the other day. Links are our life blood.

Something many haven’t been considering is the effect on logistics. It seems more logical for the technology to ferry cans of beans for 5 million miles before it’s ferrying blind people or children.

There’s a good chance that Driverless Cars will sideline retail even more than what we see now, by making shipping even cheaper and thereby amplifying the effect of the internet.

The economic flow-on effects will be far-reaching. We’ll have a go at blogging about it soon.

Matthew Newton
Driverless Car HQ

Marc Scribner May 23, 2012 at 10:33 am

No problem, Matthew.

I think the impact of (further) automating supply chains with self-driving vehicles would be massive. Unfortunately, the regulatory hurdles are much greater on the freight/commercial side than they are for private passenger vehicles. FMCSA is an awful agency that has promulgated some really nasty, restrictive rules. There would need to be a concerted effort on the part of both the administration and Congress to deregulate to permit autonomous trucks, etc. The Teamsters union would realize this would put them out of business and they’d fight tooth and nail to stop any progress in this direction. So I’m pessimistic about this in the short-run.

Christopher May 24, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Excellent article Marc. Thank You.

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