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"The Wright Brothers Era is Over" For Driverless Cars


Driverless cars have nearly arrived, and journalists are taking notice. Burkhard Bilger gave them the full New Yorker treatment in an excellent 11,000+ word piece that’s worth your time this Sunday.

Bilger starts with a very simple, very compelling argument for the need for driverless cars: “Of the ten million accidents that Americans are in every year, nine and a half million are their own damn fault.” We’re not good drivers, and the more technology we surround ourselves with, the more distractions we provide ourselves. However, there is one technology that can make driving safer and more efficient and also less of a grind: self-driving cars.

Bilger embeds himself with one Anthony Levandowski, an engineer working on Google’s self-driving car program. Levandowski is confident that the technology is progressing nicely:

“The Wright Brothers era is over,” Levandowski assured me, as the Lexus took us across the Dumbarton Bridge. “This is more like Charles Lindbergh’s plane. And we’re trying to make it as robust and reliable as a 747.”

The piece takes the time to trace the history of the Google car, but the most interesting bit is a look forward at what stands in the way of the driverless car revolution:

If driverless cars were once held back by their technology, then by ideas, the limiting factor now is the law. Strictly speaking, the Google car is already legal: drivers must have licenses; no one said anything about computers. But the company knows that won’t hold up in court. It wants the cars to be regulated just like human drivers. For the past two years, Levandowski has spent a good deal of his time flying around the country lobbying legislatures to support the technology. First Nevada, then Florida, California, and the District of Columbia have legalized driverless cars, provided that they’re safe and fully insured. But other states have approached the issue more skeptically. The bills proposed by Michigan and Wisconsin, for instance, both treat driverless cars as experimental technology, legal only within narrow limits.

Much remains to be defined. How should the cars be tested? What’s their proper speed and spacing? How much warning do drivers need before taking the wheel? Who’s responsible when things go wrong? Google wants to leave the specifics to motor-vehicle departments and insurers. (Since premiums are based on statistical risk, they should go down for driverless cars.) But the car companies argue that this leaves them too vulnerable.

These are all excellent questions. The liability issue has already been raised, and no clear answer has emerged. But there are plenty of questions the New Yorker didn’t ask that are worth exploring. How will driverless cars affect infrastructure spending? Will they make California’s decision to spend big on a high speed rail system seem even more foolish? After all, when you can read and email from the comfort of your own car, why shell out for an expensive train ticket? For their part, airlines have to be eying these auto-autos warily, as it’s not hard to imagine choosing an overnight car ride over the expense and hassle of flying.

This technology really is coming much faster than people think, and it’s bringing with it a host of changes that extend well beyond the auto industry.


[Driverless Google car image courtesy of Wikimedia]

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  • mgoodfel

    What I would like is a “follow that car” mode. Then when I’m on a long drive, I can just get behind a semi, turn on the follow mode, and not have to drive for hours.

    My car can accelerate and brake faster than the semi, so there’s no move it will make that my car couldn’t match. Yet the semi driver will do everything that requires intelligence — change lanes to avoid road construction, slow in bad weather, follow detours, etc.

    This would be much simpler than a true self-driving car, and as safe as driving gets. Groups of cars could line up in convoys, only breaking away when they approach their exits.

    I’ve read about proposals to do this, but it’s never taken off as a feature. I’m not sure why not.

  • Fat_Man

    Actually there are millions of driverless cars on the road every day. Oh, there is a human being behind the wheel, but he is talking on the phone, or texting, or reading a newspaper, or eating — and don’t forget the all time favorite — applying make-up. I see driverless cars everywhere.

    Having computers operate the car while the drivers are otherwise engaged would be a big step forward.

  • Gerald

    The concept sounds good, but the last four (expensive and presumably well designed) vehicles I have owned have all suffered from frequent sensor failures and extremely expensive maintenance. The requirements for self driving vehicles will be considerably more complex and maintenance will in all likelihood be even expensive. I would be a bit cautious in expecting to see broad scale implementation anytime soon.

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