The Google Self-Driving Car

Genius innovation or misguided investment?

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The company that has its hands in just about every industry, isn't resting on its laurels. In a fascinating article, The New York Times spotlights Google's development of self-driving, robotic cars. As John Markoff explains, Google has already created prototypes and is successfully testing them in the field:

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation...

Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together.

The article piqued the interest of technology enthusiasts and business writers. While some extolled Google's efforts others think its a foolish investment:

  • This Is Terrific, writes Seth Weintraub at CNN Money: "The most important reason for Google's sometimes wacky innovations in places where it clearly doesn't have a short term revenue plan is that it the work is inspiring.  Google employs lots of engineers. Engineers love this sort of technology-driven problem solving and by taking on these kinds of projects, Google adds a little more incentive for engineers to stay at Google and work hard for the greater good.  The team."
  • Don't Fear Technology, writes Robert Scoble at Scobleizer: "A lot of people are afraid of these technologies, but already they have helped me avoid accidents. They can see cars ahead of you at night even if they don’t have their lights on. I’ve encountered that several times, very dangerous if they are driving slowly and you’re going faster. Also, if my car senses that it is about to get in an accident, it tugs on the seatbelts and pre-fires the brakes, which makes them ultra sensitive so that I can get more braking in before an accident (you really must watch the Ford interviews to understand how important that is)."
  • This Will Be Great for Text Message Fiends, writes Mike Vilensky at New York magazine: "So who is this bad news for? Truckers. Classic American truckers, who take pleasure only in the unique melancholy of pressing the gas pedal for hours on end, and stopping at occasional motels and fast-food joints. But who wins, when robot cars hit the market? Compulsive texters, for one. America, the future is here. And it's text-heavy."
  • I Can't See Our Legal System Green Lighting This, writes Ted Frank at Point of Law:

Robot cars have the potential to save thousands of lives and double highway capacity. But it's hard to imagine them ever becoming commercially available without some tremendous change in existing law. Current traffic laws require the technology to be able to be overridden by a human driver. And the American legal system's poor track record in sudden-acceleration cases suggests that trial lawyers and juries are often going to blame the technology and the deep pocket in the event of human error. Because a Google cannot collect millions of dollars for each of the lives they save through robot cars, but will be assessed that amount (in attorneys' fees alone) every time a driver of a robot car kills or injures someone, product-liability law may well make the roads far less safe in the short- to medium-term. Even if liability concerns merely delay the technology five years (and I think the effect will be larger than that), we're talking tens of thousands of lives that will be lost because of our current justice system.

  • Why Is Google Wasting its Money on This? wonders Henry Blodget at Business Insider: "Between this and Google's wind farms and sleep pods and human-powered monorails, et al, we continue to worry that the company's focus is spread too thin.  And given the intensity of competition the company is facing from Microsoft and Apple, we wish it would be more disciplined.  Every minute Larry and other Google bosses spend thinking about robot cars and human-powered monorails is a minute they're not thinking about how to crush the iPhone."
  • The Company's Efforts Should Be Applauded, writes Michael Arrington at TechCrunch: "We want our entrepreneurs to try crazy new things. In a hundred years who knows, Google may be thought of as a car company, not a search company. Crazier things have happened. It wasn’t all that long ago, for example, that Nokia was known as a manufacturer of rubber galoshes. If Blodget had his way, they’d still be at it."

*The above photo depicts Google's street-view capturing automobiles. For images of the self-driving cars, see the New York Times article

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.