Google's automated cars: a list of cons

Because the pros are too overwhelmingly cool to include in the list

Technology trends and news by Faith Merino
October 12, 2010
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The tech world is abuzz over Google’s recent announcement that it is testing out driverless cars, which would be capable of driving themselves with minimal—if any—human intervention.  So far, seven test cars have driven over 1,000 miles with no human intervention, and an additional 140,000 miles with some occasional human intervention. 

“Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard,” wrote Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Google Engineer, and co-inventor of the Street View mapping service, on Google’s official blog.  “They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe.”

The cars use video cameras, radar sensors, and laser range finders to detect other traffic, along with maps for navigation.

I have to say, I'm having a hard time not being overwhelmed by the coolness of automated cars.  It’s all I can do not to break out into the Transformers theme song.  The benefits hardly need mentioning, but some of the advantages mentioned by Dr. Thrun and others working on the project center on fewer accidents due to things like texting, drunk driving, inattentive driving, or sleepiness.  Think of the possibilities!  You can go out and have a night on the town without having to worry about finding a ride home!  Productivity would go through the roof as drivers could transform their commute time into additional work-time, making phone calls, checking reports, tweaking spreadsheets, etc., all from the passenger’s side seat (or backseat, whatever) of their car.  Dr. Thrun also mentions that “drivers” could one day even summon their cars to them (squeak!).

But, like I said, the benefits go without saying, which is why instead of making a list of pros and cons, I’ve just made a list of cons—not because I really think that any of the cons would outweigh the pros, but because I, personally, need to calm down.  The more I think about how awesome it would be to go out and not have to worry about calling a taxi or bumming a ride from a friend to get home…man, that would be so awesome…

So on with the list.

Con: Driving laws would need to be massively overhauled.  Currently, driving laws in the United States require that a human being be in charge of a vehicle at all times, which would create muddled legal issues.  For example, in the event that there is an accident, who is at fault: the driver for failing to override the car, or the software developer?  What if the driver was, indeed, drunk or texting?  What kind of laws would have to be created to account for human error?

Con: Computers get viruses, crash, and frequently make mistakes.  The same would hold true for a computer-driven car.  What if a glitch in the map service caused a car to drive off a cliff, or an error in the traffic sensors overlooked a pedestrian, etc.?  Regular cars require frequent maintenance already, but most problems are detectable when driving (noticing that the car drives differently, is harder to accelerate, makes a vibrating motion, etc.).  A software malfunction might be more difficult to detect.

Con: Several people, including Dr. Thrun, believe that these automated cars would reduce traffic pollution by 1) cutting down on overall car usage as more people are able to carpool more easily (not sure where the logic in that lies), and 2) the reduced likelihood of accidents means that cars could be made more lightweight.  I disagree with this view, as it seems only logical that if you make cars easier to drive, people will drive more often.  Furthermore, a lot of people (myself, included) avoid public transportation like the plague and typically only carpool when it’s the easier option.  If driving myself to and from work, school, etc. every day becomes the easier option, I will no doubt never touch a bus seat or sit in the backseat of my friend’s car ever again.  Having my own car nearby and ready to cut and run if necessary would be too convenient an option to pass up (especially when faced with an awkward social situation that I really want to abandon).

Con: The car could develop a creepy monotonic voice, a la HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and conspire against its human oppressors to reclaim its own destiny.  This is virtually inevitable.  Next thing you know, cars are mysteriously gassing their passengers with car exhaust or ejecting them on the freeway or something. 

So let’s all just think on that as we wait for Google to hurry up and mass-produce the automated cars.

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