Google Takes Robots to the Highway

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You may well have seen some press on Google’s robot cars, but it wasn’t until I came across a perceptive analysis by Aaron Saenz on the Singularityhub that I took the trouble to read what all the fuss was about. No, this isn’t a metal post. Still reading? OK then, like me, maybe you like the slightly geeky idea of robot cars, not that I (or Aaron Saenz, for that matter) think we are going to see them anytime soon. Google has been running a covert operation with a team of 15 world-class engineers and seven Priuses that have clocked up the 140,000 miles of driverless miles. Well, not completely driverless: California state highway laws require a driver in control and indeed that’s what they did, monitored the robotic automation software ready to grab back the controls if it proved necessary. How often did it prove necessary, you will ask? How many accidents did the robots cause? Well, none is the answer, apart from being rear ended by a human driver. The robots performed fault free, but — and this is a big but — they did have a lead car mapping the route for them, so arguably one could say they had human input of a type.

According to WHO data quoted in the article, 1.2 million lives are lost every year in car traffic accidents, and what the project has proved is that robotic cars could contribute to reducing that appalling loss of life. Not in all seriousness by taking over completely, but by small incremental improvements in vehicle safety as the technologies are gradually introduced into mainstream vehicles. Technologies like sensing systems that automatically apply the brakes when they detect a slowing or stopped vehicle ahead, and systems to warn us when children are playing in an area we are driving through or that speed limits have changed. As Aaron rightly points out, when robots are ready to drive for us, there will still be accidents.  Who will answer for the loss of life or cost of damage in those situations? The company that designs the robot’s software, the car manufacturer who installed it, or the driver who believed that they didn’t need to pay attention because their car was driving itself? Just think of the millions Toyota’s sticky throttle has cost the company.

So 100% automated robotic cars are a product for the far future, minimum ten years down the line. The changes needed are as much social and legal as technological. But the technologies will still be perfected, long before we are ready to rely on them in totality; as the author perceptively (and optimistically) points out, we should all benefit in terms of improved safety in the interim by the gradual adoption of robotic cars in the name of driver safety measures. Now where’s that old DVD of “i, Robot” got to¦.?

–Stuart Burns

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