Google today announced that it’s been secretly road testing an automated vehicle. Posted on the Google Blog as a sort of “by the way,” it really brings home the kind of clout Google can bring to bear when they choose to. Even more amazing: it has been in testing for months, on actual roads across California, and things seem to be running smoothly. Fans of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Knight Rider are hyperventilating at the prospects.
Google is known for using state-of-the-art software when it comes to the services that they provide, so comes as no surprise that this Prius is using AI software to control the car. The system is able to sense other cars around it, and is said to be able to make the same decisions that a human driver would make, but much faster. Google has used seven cars in these tests, which have driven 1,000 miles without human input. However, more than 140,000 miles has been covered with just a little interaction from the driver. According to an article on the New York Times by John Markoff, there are still a few years yet until we will see fully autonomous vehicles on our roads – certainly seems weird that the search engine giant is heavily involved in such a project.
Google’s answer seems to be a “betterment of society” one. “We’ve always been optimistic about technology’s ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today,” Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, who spearheaded the project (and also runs Stanford’s AI Labs, and co-invented Street View), writes today. That’s great. But Google is still a public company in the business of making money for its shareholders. So one can’t help but wonder what, if any, money-making prospects there are here? “The Google researchers said the company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments,” according to the NYT. Further, they quote Thrun as saying that this project is an example of Google’s “willingness to gamble on technology that may not pay off for years.”
If your car can drive itself, a lot of commuters would be freed up to do other things in the car — such as surf the web. One of Google’s stated goals for this project is to “free up people’s time”. That matched with Schmidt’s vision of mobile devices being with us all the time every day, likely will translate into more usage of Google. Although described as being in the “experimental stage,” Google said it hoped that its technology would be used to develop the self-driving cars of tomorrow, cutting the lives lost in auto accidents – 1.2 million, according to the World Health Organization, by as much as half.
The cars themselves leverage technology used in tests sponsored by DARPA, which has sponsored competitions to develop an autonomous car that can self-navigate off road and on city streets. In 2006, the agency tested city driving, and, in 2007, involved negotiating a “city” on an abandoned airbase. Google said that it had hired several members of those teams, including: Chris Urmson, the technical team leader of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge; Mike Montemerlo, the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge; and Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge.
I can see electric cars recharged by solar power with low to no emissions being used in the future as a green alternative. Automated public transit and carpooling could help to unclog our roads and highways. Best of all, maybe this kind of thing could actually cut down on vehicular accidents to a significant degree.
If we could halve the number of traffic deaths each year, it would be world-changing. And if energy consumption could be cut, it could re-shape economies and save our future. But again, don’t gloss over the last part. Freeing up those 52 minutes a day to be productive — that’s a lot of potential money for Google. And that’s great too. If Google can spend the time and money working on such amazing technology they should be rewarded for it. There’s no rule that says you shouldn’t be able to make money by changing the world. And Google can’t be praised enough for trying.