Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential to Benefit Society

Posted on September 6, 2014  Comments (4)

Self-driving cars was something that seemed very far-fetched when I first read Google was seriously investing in pursuing that idea as a commercially viable product (Google’s Self Driving Car – 2010 post). I quickly became convinced they were right. I still think it is questionable if they will succeed (the political issues may well be even more difficult than technical ones). But the chances of success seem reasonable and the investment in research could provide a huge payoff.

Google’s self driving cars have driven 700,000 miles without an accident already; which is amazing. Warren Buffett stated that “self-driving cars are a real threat to the car insurance business” (His company owns the GIECO car insurance company) at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha.

There are some people, stressing that this is not ready for mass market use. They are right. But, I think it is funny to see people thinking that a very early stage huge innovation in transportation not being ready today is a reasonable criticism. I am amazed that this huge innovation may actually be available before 2020. That would be incredible.

Certainly even then it will have limitations. And certainly there will be accidents. The current transportation system with humans driving cars has thosands of accidents a day and tens of thousands of deaths a year in the USA alone every year. Every year 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic-related incidents, and over 90% of those accidents are due to human error.

The potentially to reduce the amount of death and serious injury we currently experience is a great goal. I have always found our objection to new ideas that it has a drawback and will ignoring the drawbacks of the current system to be poor reasoning. It is often related to an attachment to the familiar and reluctance to change.

It also relates to our psychology where we often see mistakes of commission as more harmful than omission and then we equate doing the same thing we did before as the assumed behavior and somehow not something we chose (which of course is not accurate, it is an act of commission even if it is the same action as before but psychologically we mistake this relation).

It also related to our legalistic thinking to blame individuals, even when that is not sensible as systems are more responsible for the results. This will be one of the challenges to a safer transportation system – the desire to assign blame in the same way we did before. The delay of safer solutions because lawyers don’t like the new system would be a shame, but is possible. While a delay is possible I don’t think they will be able to prevent a safer transportation solution from becoming a reality.

And the other economic and quality of life benefits are huge. The amount of time wasted driving now is huge. The improved freedom for everyone but most even more so for disable or temporarily injured people would be enormous. This is very exciting technology.

Hidden Obstacles for Google’s Self-Driving Cars

Google often leaves the impression that, as a Google executive once wrote, the cars can “drive anywhere a car can legally drive.” However, that’s true only if intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car’s exact route, including driveways, extensively mapped. Data from multiple passes by a special sensor vehicle must later be pored over, meter by meter, by both computers and humans. It’s vastly more effort than what’s needed for Google Maps.

Google’s cars are better at handling some mapping omissions than others. If a new stop light appeared overnight, for example, the car wouldn’t know to obey it. However the car would slow down or stop if its on-board sensors detected any traffic or obstacles in its path.

Google’s cars can detect and respond to stop signs that aren’t on its map, a feature that was introduced to deal with temporary signs used at construction sites. But in a complex situation like at an unmapped four-way stop the car might fall back to slow, extra cautious driving to avoid making a mistake. Google says that its cars can identify almost all unmapped stop signs, and would remain safe if they miss a sign because the vehicles are always looking out for traffic, pedestrians and other obstacles.

Alberto Broggi, a professor studying autonomous driving at Italy’s Università di Parma, says he worries about how a map-dependent system like Google’s will respond if a route has seen changes.

Google’s decision to prototype vehicles without controls people could use surprised me. I think they are really looking at the possibilities such vehicles offer. This is exactly the type of huge potential project that relies of engineering and technology that Google should be investing in. I believe Google is likely to make a huge return on their investment even if just one such effort worked well and if they get several the gains could be huge. Google X is dedicated to research into potential huge innovations. Other areas Google X is targeting include: renewable energy, robotics, drones and life sciences.

Certainly Google has more to do before the car is ready for widespread commercial use. But the prospects that we could actually be buying self-driving cars in less than 10 years is amazing to me. I hope so for numerous reasons: saved lives (that would have ended earlier under our current system costing 1.2 million lives a year), healthy lives (through fewer serious injuries), better lives (less time wasted in cars – at first we can spend that time more productively and eventually it will reduce wasted time with systemic solutions provided by self-driving cars), economic benefits and finally investment benefits for Google stockholders (as I own some stock in Google).

Related: DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 autonomous ground vehicle competitionEngineers Save a Life (car safety designs)Driving Using Direct Signals from the BrainWave Disk Engine Could Increase Efficiency 5 Times

The Truth About Google X

audacious innovations that have a slim chance of succeeding but might revolutionize the world if they do.

Generally speaking, there are three criteria that X projects share. All must address a problem that affects millions–or better yet, billions–of people. All must utilize a radical solution that has at least a component that resembles science fiction. And all must tap technologies that are now (or very nearly) obtainable. But to DeVaul, the head of Rapid Eval, there’s another, more unifying principle that connects the three criteria: No idea should be incremental.

4 Responses to “Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential to Benefit Society”

  1. Upendra
    October 10th, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

    Really interesting post. Will they work in unorganized roads like Indian roads?


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