Less than two weeks ago, I attended a talk by Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Schmidt spoke about a profoundly computer-augmented future, and said that there was no reason why super-safe self-driving cars couldn’t be built–in fact, he said he couldn’t understand why humans were allowed to drive automobiles at all. (As is fairly common with Schmidt comments, it wasn’t entirely clear where that comment sat on the continuum from utter frivolity to deadly seriousness.)
At the time, I wondered whether Google wanted to control the computers that controlled the world’s cars. Now we know the answer: It does, or at least it wants to play an active role in inventing the technology.
As the New York Times’ John Markoff reports and a Google blog post discloses, Google has been working on developing cars that can drive themselves. One such vehicle, a modified Prius, motored its way down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Monica. (Its route apparently came within a couple of miles of my house–maybe I shared the road with it.) The idea may stretch the definition of Google’s mission–”to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”–but the noble goals include saving lives, reducing pollution, and generally making travel more efficient.
The Google blog post says that its autopilot vehicles have logged more than 140,000 miles to date, which presumably means the project has been going on for quite a while. It sounds cool, but I’m unclear why it’s apparently been secret until now, or why Schmidt spoke so cryptically and so recently of laws restricting the roads to self-driving cars without mentioning that Google was building them.
Google isn’t the only outfit working on this idea–a few months ago, I went for a very brief ride in a self-driving, self-parking Volkswagen developed at Stanford University. And the basic idea has been fodder for magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science for decades. Herewith, a few examples from the past seventy-seven years ago–none of which seem to have gotten as far as Google’s experiments.
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