What’s the News: Google’s self-driving cars have been generating buzz lately, with the news that the company has been lobbying Nevada to allow the autonomous vehicles to be operated on public roads. But it remains to be seen whether hordes of self-driving cars really going to work in the real world.How the Heck: Google’s driverless cars are equipped with video cameras, GPS units, radar sensors, and a laser range finder. They learn a route as a human motorist drives along it, and on subsequent trips the cars take over, using their sensors to react to changing conditions, like when pedestrians are in a crosswalk. Google’s vehicles have two people aboard during tests, one observing from the driver’s seat and one keeping an eye on the car’s equipment. Not So Fast:
Google says that automated vehicles could reduce traffic fatalities, of which there were 34,000 in the U.S. in 2008—in fact, they estimate that a million lives per year could be saved. But self-driving cars can get “confused” when they see things they don’t expect, one Google employee admitted to Scientific American, which sets off some pretty loud alarms:
"There are things that right now are a challenge for us," Urmson says. "For instance, if most of the world stayed the same but the lanes are shifted—so the physical road didn't move but, for whatever reason, the department of transportation decided we should drive a half lane to the left—that would probably confuse the car today."
And while the prospect of fewer traffic fatalities is always welcome, the presence of even the most careful and well-designed driverless cars on the road raises some thorny ethical questions. An MIT engineer hits the nail on the head when he asks whether people are more comfortable with human failures than those of machines when it comes to deaths (via Scientific American): "Suppose 10 human-generated fatalities are replaced with five robot-generated fatalities, is that an ethical trade that society wants to make?"
What’s the Context:
Last year, Google revealed that it had secretly test-driven the vehicles for more than 140,000 miles on California roads, with more than a thousand of those miles under total automation. Another 9,000 or so miles have since been logged.
The cars are the descendants of vehicles from the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition that ran from 2005–2007 that focused on developing drone vehicles for use in combat and featured teams from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, among other schools.
The Future Holds: As simple as the math sounds---fewer deaths is better, even if they’re the fault of computers---it’s hard to see society embracing that particular trolley problem when it comes to personal vehicles. But perhaps some aspects of Google's automation will eventually make their way into consumer products. Some kinds of vehicles, especially planes, have many automatic features that contribute to safety already (though, as you'll see if you click through, the same problems with machine versus human failures arise there too). And BMW is already using laser sensors to alert drivers to pedestrians in blind intersections.