Google Tries to Jump-Start the Driverless Car, But Big Questions Loom

By Veronique Greenwood | May 23, 2011 4:17 pm

What’s the News: Google’s self-driving cars have been generating buzz lately, with the news that the company has been lobbying Nevada to allow the autonomous vehicles to be operated on public roads. But it remains to be seen whether hordes of self-driving cars really going to work in the real world.

How the Heck:

Google’s driverless cars are equipped with video cameras, GPS units, radar sensors, and a laser range finder. They learn a route as a human motorist drives along it, and on subsequent trips the cars take over, using their sensors to react to changing conditions, like when pedestrians are in a crosswalk. Google’s vehicles have two people aboard during tests, one observing from the driver’s seat and one keeping an eye on the car’s equipment.

Not So Fast:

“There are things that right now are a challenge for us,” Urmson says. “For instance, if most of the world stayed the same but the lanes are shifted—so the physical road didn’t move but, for whatever reason, the department of transportation decided we should drive a half lane to the left—that would probably confuse the car today.”

  • And while the prospect of fewer traffic fatalities is always welcome, the presence of even the most careful and well-designed driverless cars on the road raises some thorny ethical questions. An MIT engineer hits the nail on the head when he asks whether people are more comfortable with human failures than those of machines when it comes to deaths (via Scientific American): “Suppose 10 human-generated fatalities are replaced with five robot-generated fatalities, is that an ethical trade that society wants to make?”

What’s the Context:

The Future Holds: As simple as the math sounds—fewer deaths is better, even if they’re the fault of computers—it’s hard to see society embracing that particular trolley problem when it comes to personal vehicles. But perhaps some aspects of Google’s automation will eventually make their way into consumer products. Some kinds of vehicles, especially planes, have many automatic features that contribute to safety already (though, as you’ll see if you click through, the same problems with machine versus human failures arise there too). And BMW is already using laser sensors to alert drivers to pedestrians in blind intersections.

  • Kyle

    So who is to blame for the five robot deaths? Will families of roadside victims be suing google for creating their dead sons killing machine? The car company who uses the programs?

  • Bob Dunn

    Driverless cars tell no tales.
    Come to think of it,neither do Cruise Controls (fixed throttles).
    Not good for wet roads due to highsiding/sliding.
    Dangerous in the hands of inexperience drivers,and they DON’T KNOW when the driver has “drifted to sleep”.
    Do You Know.The Cruise Control ‘cuts out ‘on the vehicles impact?.
    How many more drivers have to die before there is an expert enquiry in to these KILLERS

  • Bob Dunn

    Driverless cars tell no tales. Come to think of it,neither do Cruise Controls (fixed throttles). Not good for wet roads due to highsiding/sliding. Dangerous in the hands of inexperienced drivers, and they DON’T KNOW when the driver has “drifted to sleep”. Do You Know, The Cruise Control ‘cuts out ‘on the vehicles impact? How many more drivers have to die before there is an expert enquiry in to these SILENT KILLERS.

  • Richard Dinning

    I can see the advantages of automating driving, especially on busy highways where automated cars could run much closer together due to the instant computer reflexes compared to the built in 0.75 second delay in humans.

    However, that’s not a driver-less car, that’s a car with a human driver who turns over control to computers for the really boring part of the drive. A driver-less car would have no one in the driver’s seat. Does that mean everybody would sit in the back seat or front passenger seat, why?

    Since most adults drive today, wouldn’t one of them want to sit in the driver’s seat to get to the highway before turning over control to the computer?

  • Lila Sovietskaya

    Any technology can be put to evil use. A driverless car is the perfect terrorists, it has no hesitation to blow itself apart or launch itself on a crowd of people. For any new technology there must be preventive measures. The navigation system must be tamper-proof so as no to override the basic safety mandates. The program must be very well trained by simulators. We cannot afford on the job learning by machines.

    The abundance of electronics in a car creates many distractions. A driverless car reduces such dangers. Voice activation of controls is very desirable. A driverless car could be used by handicapped people, Example, blind people. Such a car would be programmed to obey laws, but also to allow the human to take control of the car, and send an automated message to a police computer that a human override has happened, that laws are being violated during emergency mode. Than a human policeman might investigate the situation. Normal overrides would leave a human in control, however the automated system would not obey some commands like hit a crowd, hit another vehicle. Break suddenly so that a car behind, detected as human driven might not have time to react and many other potentially damaging situation.

    Unlike in today’s freeways, cars could cooperate to make lane changing easy, let a faster ca pass, etc. There will be initial reluctance to use such cars. As the record of safety advances, the advantages of using of a driverless car will become the best incentive to use them.

  • Jay Warner

    So what is the problem? too much time spent piloting vehicles?, congested freeways? Cost of auto travel? Inattentive drivers (includes slower reflexes than computers)? Inasmuch as people really don’t get a thrill out of driving a common commute, perhaps this would reduce the amount of time they spent watching the road. Unless something unexpected happened (how much warning does the computer system get or give for new construction?:). The tighter spacing of automobiles under this scheme will work only when all of them use the same system, and the riders are willing to accept sudden jolts as the cars take rapid avoidance measures. Cost will not go down significantly, as the largest part of the cost (after ownership) is parking at one or both ends of the trip.

    In principle the idea of a piloted vehicle (AI on the go!) is nice. But if you have to keep an eye on conditions for that small unanticipated change, how relaxing is it going to be?

  • Vogie

    I love the idea of AI super-cruise-control (or, in Eureka terms, Smart Asphalt). 98+% of the time, it’d be fantastic. After you get past the semantic barriers, all of the issues that would obliterate a car before a computer could react properly would not benefit from a human controller. This sort of system wouldn’t be just set up for just a lone computer-controlled vehicle in a sea of meatcycles: all information would (if the designers are smart) be shared amongst the smart vehicles. So, if there was spontaneous lane switching due to construction, Jacknife zombies or other barriers, the only vehicle to be caught off guard would be the first.
    A hive mind proximity check would be incredibly useful for all services.

    Think of those glorious scenes in I, Robot – especially when will was on the ‘ancient’ motorcycle (Gas? Gas explodes!) and his helemet was even warning him that traffic in front of him was stopped. Highway patrolmen or construction workers could designate exactly how far the flow of traffic should be from them, & how fast it would be, traffic would move & part like a boulder in a stream. Even if the Smart Asphalt was only active on freeways and major roads, that’d be a huge boon, as those are where the large precentage of disasterous accidents occur

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  • Tim

    This is marvelous. Although I have a driver’s license, the possibility of a disability made me decide to stop driving. That greatly impedes and restrains what is a very active life. I am at the mercy of where people are willing to drive me or where mass transit goes. It’s made me despise urban sprawl. I cherish the spontanaity, flexibility, and range this offers my life which now takes as much planning as a space shuttle mission used to!


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