Hold Onto Your Hat Because Google Took the Steering Wheel

If you’ve been reading any of the tech news lately, you’ve probably heard about Google’s Driverless cars. Even if you haven’t been in the tech news you’ve probably heard of these things. It’s kind of like rumors about Kim Kardashian getting “married.” We all get the concept, but we're really not sure it's going to work.

Well, after doing some research, I've found out that the rumors surrounding Google's driverless cars are more than rumors. It's like the Jetsons coming to life right in front of us.


A Long, Long Time Ago…

In 2004, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an arm of the US Department of Defense, issued a challenge. They set out a course in the Mojave Desert and said they would give one million dollars to the first team to finish the course. No one finished.

The next year they upped the prize to two million dollars. Five teams finished. The first place team was from Stanford and led by Sebastian Thrun. If you know some Google history, you’ll know that the co-founders are also from Stanford. Thus began Google’s collaboration to get into the market.

Flash forward to October 9th, 2010. Sebastian Thrun posts on Google’s official blog that they have logged 140,000 miles with their prototypes. The same day a New York Times article came out saying that Google had been working on the project in secret right out in the open. People had just thought that the cars were Google’s new Street View cars. They didn’t realize the cars were driving themselves.

In March 2012, a YouTube video showed up on the Internet showing a Google car chauffeuring Steve Mahan, a man who is blind, to Taco Bell. The thing was that Steve was “driving” the car.


Steve-Mahan-drives-2 Google is my kind of company. They'll spend millions of dollars to help humanity double-fist one dollar tacos. Source: youtube.com

Later in August 2012, another blog showed up. Chris Urmson, the projects engineering lead, told the world that drivers in the project would be going from driving in pairs to single drivers, and that they had added a Lexus RX to their fleet.

In April of 2014, Google released another blog. This time Chris Urmson, with the upgraded title of “Director of the Self-Driving Car Project,” highlights the 700,000 miles the car has logged as well as the ability for the cars to handle complex situations like pedestrians jaywalking and people like my grandma using the median as a passing lane.

In May of 2014, Google debuted a car with no steering wheel and no pedals. That’s where we sit now. The question is where are we headed?


What’s Next?

Nevada, Florida, California, Michigan and Washington D.C. passed laws that allow driverless cars to operate on their roadways as long as certain conditions are met (for instance in Michigan you have to have someone behind the wheel as long as the car is in operation). Ten other states have laws in committees. All that is to say that it is going to be legal to have these bad boys on the road in a few years.

The smallest challenge that Google seems to face is getting the program for the cars figured out. The program is called “Chauffer,” and it works 99% of the time. The program has not had a crash in all of its test-driving, but as of right now the program can hand back controls to the human driver of the vehicle if the computer starts to get nervous. The issue is getting the car to be used to 99.9999999% of the situations it will face (like a kid running out into the street). However, with the speed at which Google is solving the complex issues it is facing, that problem will probably go the way of the dodo by 2016.

The biggest issue is getting this product to market. The first problem is that the lasers and GPS that it takes to run a driverless car cost about $75,000. And then you have to buy the car. If you could get all the big automakers to buy into this idea, the mass production would drive the cost down. The problem is getting those automakers to buy in.

It seems like the automakers are more nervous than a boy with freckles and farts at a middle school dance. They don’t want to partner up with Google just yet because they are worried about the market acceptance of such technology and the possibility that government regulation will kill the whole thing.


download I sweated through my jorts at my first cotillion. Source: eriklukepeterson.wordpress.com

The biggest reason automakers aren’t jumping into this market like Scrooge McDuck into his money pit has to do with liability. If there are no drivers in the cars, then who is legally responsible for an accident? If an automaker puts there stamp of approval on a wheele-less, pedal-less pod, they want to make sure that it will not come back to bite them in their pocketbooks if the bad guy from Live Free or Die Hard takes over control of all the cars and crashes them into each other.

While the legalities of it all has kept the big three automakers out of the game for the time being, it hasn’t stopped smaller car companies like Roush from collaborating with Google (at least that’s who most people think built Google’s wheel-free, pedal-free car). These kinds of partnerships will get the cars to the market faster because it keeps Google from having to invent a new car from the suspension up.

Once I waded through all the problems driverless cars are facing, I started to get a little giddy thinking about what I could do with something like that. The obvious is that I could play Candy Crush (without guilt) on the way to work. Road construction would go away until I was long dead because roadway capacity could increase five-fold with cars packing themselves on the freeway better than me. Maybe I could even sell my car and just lease one of the little pods with a few of my neighbors and have it schedule our pick-ups and drop-offs. Or maybe Wal-Mart would just send one to my house to pick me up while they bombard me with images of fishing lures and catnip.

Though we might be years away from seeing driverless cars in everyone’s driveways, I am beginning to think that my grandkids might never touch a steering wheel. What do you think?