A Different Look at Google’s Self-Driving Car

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3 min to read

Google’s Self-Driving Car Project is driving almost as many headlines as miles today. With over one million autonomous miles under their wheels, self-driving cars are on our streets, revving up conversation and concern over their technological impact on transportation as we know it.

But Google is trying to tread on another side of that issue. Instead of changing an existing industry or form of mobility, Google wants to develop “driving” for people who can’t drive in the first place, and make it easier, safer, and more affordable, too.

“The key to what makes a revolutionary technology is not merely its new capabilities, but its questions,” said Brookings Institution director, Peter W. Singer.

Little of Google’s mission has made headlines, as tech talk and accident arguments dominate the debate. But while we’re debating the ethics, safety, and legality of that technology, it is already here.

The Other Questions

We get stuck talking about technology from the perspective of what things no longer are (i.e., “horseless carriages”), Singer says about these revolutionary technologies, instead of what they are and mean now.

As auto transport managers, we know, better than most, that driving is about more than travel. The importance of a car isn’t just its value or beauty, it’s the function and freedom it provides for getting around each day.

Accepting this technology as our future, let’s look beyond, to the philosophy, behind Google’s development of driverless cars.

Google’s Vision

Google’s project site asks, “Imagine if everyone could get around easily and safely, regardless of their ability to drive.” The project is driven by the goal of making driving accessible, as well as safer and more affordable.

Driving in this case doesn’t mean the dictionary definition. It refers to the ability to get around, under your own power, which today generally means driving a car, bike, or other wheeled vehicle. For many people, that ability is physically or legally impossible.

“It is possible to create the technology that allows people to lead healthier, happier lives,” said Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google.

Consider the conveniences of your car on a daily basis, all accessible to you because you can drive. Now keep all those conveniences, but take away the need to operate the vehicle yourself. That’s what Google is promising from the future of their project.

How it Works

If images of a limo and chauffeur come to mind when you consider not driving yourself, sorry to burst your bubble. Google has another one for you, however, the curved, white fully self-driving prototype car.

In December 2014, Google’s first bubble-shaped, functional prototype began making inroads on our roads. Google began road-testing the tech in 2009, but the more they explored the needs of safe self-driving, the more they realized redesign wasn’t the answer.

Starting from scratch meant the car could be shaped and sensored based on the needs of the software, not a driver. No steering wheel? Forget pedals, too. Driving is completely controlled by the car’s software and sensors.

Sound scary? We’re not going to debate the technology here, but Google claims their cars, the partnership of sensors and software, have learned like any other driver on the road. And if you consider the average adult drives about 13,000 miles/year, these cars have driven themselves for the equivalent of 75-years.

Autos for Autonomy

Driving is about more than travel, it’s the freedom and ability to get around. But many people, for numerous reasons, are physically or legally unable to drive a vehicle. Examples include people with disabilities, like blindness or epilepsy, partially immobility, older drivers, and immigrants awaiting citizenship.

Being unable to drive keeps otherwise fully functional people from getting around in a convenient, timely, and most importantly, independent manner. Although many transportation service are available, think about those conveniences you enjoy in your personal vehicle.

When we use our cars, we’re not just traveling, we’re hauling groceries, briefcases, pets, kids, and other things. We can set our schedules by where we want to be and when, instead of around bus times or other’s availability.

As Google proposes, if getting around in a personal vehicle wasn’t reliant on a capable human driver, many people would gain better access to medical services, employment opportunities, grocery stores, and more.

Autonomy for Affordability

Another major goal of Google’s project is making transportation more affordable.

If cars can return themselves home, there will be less need for parking, freeing up real estate for the development of businesses and homes, which may eventually lower rent and property costs.

Personal car insurance may become cheaper because autonomous driving takes human error out of the equation.

Assuming the first self-driving cars will have minor differences, costs and repairs could be cheaper.

Once cars are fully automated, the need for protective structural and material features should be reduced, as accidents become less common and severe. Weight reduction improves fuel economy, another way autonomy may lead to affordability.

Too Slow for What?

Today, the easily identifiable prototype is often seen in action, cruising at 25mph on streets in Mountain View, California.

Complaints about the car driving slowly and hesitantly (“like your grandma,” according to one Time article), carry less weight measured against what they may replace.

First, for those who need to get around short distances, from home, to work, to the shopping or shopping, traveling under your own power at 25mph easily tops walking, biking, or bussing it.

Second, self-driving cars would mostly travel locally. There is little need to speed on city streets, plus, we already provide protected bike and bus lanes. Similar accommodations could be made for self-driving car commuters, especially if the adaptation replaces other space and safety factors, such as congestion, parking, and bus stops.

The final point is safety. Human drivers take many risks and can easily become distracted. The self-driving car doesn’t have to be perfect to be safe, it just has to be better than a human.

For a Better World

Google’s self-driving car is forcing us to ask new questions about what is and should be possible, things we’ve never considered before. But the question isn’t if we should go there, it’s what we’ll do when we get there. Technology can be terrifying, but a better world isn’t.

“Every so often, a technology comes along that changes the rules of the game,” said Singer. “These technologies – be they fire, the printing press, gunpowder, the steam engine, the computer, etc. – are rare, but truly consequential.”

Getting from point A to point B (and beyond) isn’t just about where we’re going, it’s about how we’ll get there, and what we find when we arrive. If we talk about technology together with philosophy, we have a chance at arriving at that better world–even if it takes an autonomous car to get us there!

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