The Daily Mail recently got suckered by a TechCrunch article from 2023 about Google selling a fleet of driverless cars to Uber. This being the Internet, it spread like wildfire and people got excited about the GX3200. Too bad it was fake.
But here’s the thing…Google is working on driverless cars. In fact, they’re arguably doing more work on it than auto manufacturers and academics. But will they ever be available to the public? And if so, when?
The short answer, in terms of whether you can buy one, is “Maybe.” There are some pretty serious technological and legal hurdles the driverless car will have to jump before they’re a viable concern.
The first and most basic is that driverless cars are, well, essentially illegal in forty-seven states, and only legal under very specific circumstances in Nevada, Florida, and California. This is unlikely to change any time soon: Our entire insurance and legal system, when it comes to cars, is built around the assumption a human is driving. If one isn’t, that raises questions of liability nobody particularly wants to answer. And as there’s no pressing demand, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
That’s because driverless cars are expensive. Google’s car use $150,000 worth of gear including a $70,000 LIDAR system. Most academic systems are similarly expensive and depend on tools like LIDAR, which isn’t coming down in cost any time soon. There are cheaper systems out there, but they can really only travel a carefully pre-determined route. And even the most expensive cars can’t do certain tasks, like, say, reverse.
And technologically speaking, while the cars probably have a better driving record than anybody reading this, there are still some pretty serious problems. Robots do not handle random things that suddenly direction change or act irrationally very well, even now, and that pretty much defines your average pedestrian.
So why is Google doing this in the first place? For two reasons. The first is that Google basically has money to burn and is run by the kind of people who want to make technologies you generally find in science fiction movies real: Just look at Google Glass. Keep in mind Google’s robotic cars are built by Sebastian Thrun, an expert in artificial intelligence. The better the driverless car, the better robots and AI will be overall. It’s fairly likely that the driverless car is as much a test bed for other technologies Google is developing as an end in of itself.
Secondly, Google has explicitly stated that they want to license the technology to automakers, and if you think about it, Google has a lot invested in navigation. Most of us use Google Maps to get a sense of where we need to go, and Google has been attempting to build off of that for a while.
It’s more likely driverless systems will be slowly introduced; for example, through automatic parking systems, or accident mitigation systems. We’ll give up more and more control until basically we have our own private bus. And frankly, considering how some people drive, that day can’t come soon enough.
(Image courtesy Steve Jurvetson on Wikimedia Commons)