May 29, 2011

Driverless Cars - Sign Me Up

“Consider one potentially important technology, the driverless car. The idea is simple: a computer drives the car for you, based on input from the surrounding environment. Putting a computer behind the wheel may sound scary, but in road tests performed by Google and other companies, the cars have had a good safety record.

The benefits of driverless cars are potentially significant. The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic; imagine using that time in better ways — by working or just having fun. The irksome burden of commuting might be lessened considerably. Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars.”

I’ve been a fan of the idea since I saw a crowded freeway scene in Minority Report. The cars navigated themselves as the occupants chatted, watched movies, slept. I thought, my hour-and-a-quarter one-way commute would be a pleasure if I could spend it reading, writing and relaxing rather than driving.

The Stanford Racing Team’s victory in the DARPA Grand Challenge was a critical milestone in the development of driverless vehicles, giving initial proof of concept. They successfully navigated 150 miles of tough terrain through the Mojave Desert from Barstow, California to Primm, Nevada. While not the same as navigating a road full of human obstacles, finding a safe path through hardscrabble desert is no easy task.

Google hired the winning team members, and they’ve been successfully testing driverless vehicles on the roads of California, alongside regular street traffic, since their victory. They’re also working to bring driverless vehicles out of test status:

As of May 2011 Google is lobbying for legislation that would make Nevada the first state where driverless vehicles could be legally operated on public roads. The proposed legislation consist of two bills that are expected to come to a vote before the Legislature’s session ends in June 2011.

The real deal may be just around the corner, at least in one part of the country. Can’t wait.