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Have You Heard About the New Robot-Driven Google Car?

The "Google Car"

The "Google Car."

This is a huge week for Google.  The New York Times revealed Saturday that engineers at the tech company have been tooling around in a Toyota Prius – without anyone in the driver’s seat.  That’s right.  Google “has been working in secret but in plain view on vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.”

The future is now, kids.

Paul Saffo at The Daily Beast says robot cars will make us “safer drivers.” He says, “Better sensors and artificial intelligence will deliver adaptive cruise control capable of responding to sudden slowdowns and anticipating fog-hidden pileups…. Our cars will chide us if we tailgate and watch us as we drive and jolt us awake if [we] are distracted or drifting off to sleep.”

That’s all well and good, I guess.  I mean, I have driven on highways a lot in the years since my daughter was born, and I am constantly harping to anyone who will listen about all the unsafe drivers on the road today.  I hate tailgating, speeding, weaving and most importantly – people who text while they drive.  There’s a lot of anti-social behavior going on in cars these days, and so a robot taking over and putting our cars on auto-pilot maybe isn’t the worst idea in the world.

However, I’m concerned that all of the intelligence and data involved in driving – or not driving – this new Google car, will make things more confusing for drivers when we do have to take the wheel, adding more layers of noise to an already complicated task.  For example, Saffo says the artificial intelligence systems “will link to data in the cloud (like Google Maps and Street View) to provide smart real-time hazard identification, routing and warnings when drivers are speeding above posted limits.”  Using Google Maps and Street View may be no different than using a GPS system, but I’m sort of against the use of GPS.  It can be helpful if you get lost, of course, but it effectively shuts down our intuition and innate sense of direction.  Is that a good thing?

Google’s test drives thus far have proven extraordinarily successful.  The Times reports “seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control.  One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.”

For now, you can rest easy, since these robot cars are still years away from being mass produced, and Google hasn’t developed a business model surrounding the product.  Saffo says, “Barriers range from regulatory anxieties to the auto industry’s famously conservative engineering culture, and more than a few daunting technical challenges.”  Those regulatory anxieties are certainly well-founded, and Google’s researchers know it.  John Markoff of the Times writes, “Under current law, a human must be in control of a car at all times, but what does that mean if the human is not really paying attention as the car crosses through, say, a school zone, figuring that the robot is driving more safely than he would?”

Precisely.  As a parent, I’m all for safety controls, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of humans relinquishing control in the name of safety only to meet with fatal failure.  This is definitely a story to continue to watch.

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