Imagine a world where the autopilot functionality found on planes and airliners was just as commonplace in consumer automobiles on road and highways around America; technological dreams and visions that were once the stuff of science fiction novels are quickly becoming a very feasible possibility. Automated cars could provide all the luxury and convenience of a private chauffeur service while making travel more efficient and precise! Programmed robotic drivers would mostly, if not completely, remove the need for human operation in our most widely used transportation routes and eliminate the elements of human error and careless driving that result in countless collisions every year. The concept of computer-driven cars offers excitingly hopeful prospects for safer and easier one-way transportation and Google Inc.'s "Google X" division has been at the forefront of development efforts, spearheading projects that are redefining what is possible in the realm of autonomous vehicles and changing the future of how Americans travel.
The Potential of Driverless Cars
The benefits of a fully functional digital chauffeur built into the workings of a street-legal automobile extend far beyond an added convenience for drivers who would rather read a book or nap en route during long road excursions. Dmitri Dolgov, a software engineer for the Google X division that pioneers long-term technological prototype projects, frames his mission in establishing practical driverless cars as one geared towards safety: "Thousands and thousands of people are killed in car accidents every year... This could change that." In a perfect world, computer-operated vehicles could work together to undermine driver imperfections and distractions that cause collisions and accidents, but reaching the goal of creating a system that could safely operate an individual vehicle on public roads has proven to be a daunting task.
After recently scrapping a concept that included an emergency manual override function for drivers to take back control from self-driving computer systems, Google's scientists realized that it was impractical to depend on human drivers for safety in the endeavor of developing an autonomous automobile. Passengers in an automated car might be sleeping, reading, or otherwise distracted and so the only real way to ensure safety in such a moving vehicle is to give complete control to the digital driving system.
"Look, Mom; No Hands!"
Building on arrangements of sensors and GPS software employed in its original self-driving car conceived in 2010, Google has enlisted Detroit-based Roush Enterprises to manufacture a vehicle from the ground up that lacks any steering wheel or pedals at all. The futuristic bubble-like result, which resembles the compact frame and design of a Fiat 500 or Smart car, features only an emergency stop button and has all necessary technology integrated into its hull. While not quite on par with the size of a spacious van rental or class of a luxury car rental, the vehicles comfortably seat two passengers and are designed for shorter trips in urban areas. Powered exclusively by electricity and packed with state-of-the-art electronics and software, this latest creation from Google is designed to set the bar as the automated taxi cab of the future. These vehicles piloted entirely by autonomous onboard computers can be summoned and programmed with a smartphone app and, although currently maxing out at speeds around 30mph, the vehicles have high hopes of revolutionizing the transportation industry: "There is nothing to say that once you demonstrate the safety, why can't you go 100 miles per hour?" Said Google X co-founder Sergey Brin in a recent interview.
Ethics and Accountability Obstacles for Autonomous Vehicles
Aside from additional testing and calibration the only thing holding back Google's prototype driverless taxis from going public are legal and ethical implications. California and Florida are among the only few states to allow legal operation and testing of driverless vehicles on public roads, a crucial necessity in concluding development and making the vehicles available to consumers. Google has run extensive tests on public roads around their headquarters in California and claims that, after more than 700,000 miles of driverless travel, not one accident or collision was sustained. Representatives and manufacturers have been lobbying for autonomous vehicle legality with steady progress over the past several years and in the meantime Google has been continuing to tweak its technologies while testing on permitted roads.
The driverless car concept, however, is far from perfect and has raised many concerns among lawmakers and officials. Professor J. Christian Gerdes of Stanford University was recently quoted as saying "Should a car try to protect its occupants at the expense of hitting pedestrians? And will we accept it when machines make mistakes, even if they make far fewer mistakes than humans? We can significantly reduce risk, but I don't think we can drive it to zero." Accidents are an inevitability even in the precise world of science and technology and accountability becomes a blurry issue when the human element is removed from the equation. It would be hard to determine liability in a collision where a driverless car was involved and autonomous vehicles would certainly need to be capable of operating on roads with other conventional vehicles. Although driverless cars may be available to consumers in the near future, the scope would be considerably limited in relation to Google's larger goal of revolutionizing the travel industry on the whole. "Obviously it will take time, a long time," said Mr. Brin, "but I think it has a lot of potential."
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