Self Driving – Your Car Can Handle It, But Can You?

AUDI tt self drive
AUDI tt self drive

by Douglas Black, enerficiency On The Road, January 18, 2013

Last week Audi and Toyota unveiled ground-breaking advances in the fast-approaching world of Autonomous Automobiles (A2s).  General Motors is also conducting road tests of self driving vehicles.

Google Prius
Google Prius

By now you have probably heard that there are some big players investing big money in developing driverless – or self driving vehicles.

While there are many technical and legal hurdles that must be overcome before hands-free/eyes-free driving is commonplace the biggest hurdle may be that of public opinion.

Many people are uneasy about sharing the highway with driverless cars.  “(At work) when my computer crashes, it’s annoying.  If the car’s computer crashes, we all crash”, warned Roger Abdella, a dispatcher from Flint who was attending the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit last week.

“It will take a lot of convincing” added Abdella, in line with many visitors we spoke to at the NAIAS who also expressed similar apprehension.

Google, the search engine giant and new technologies force, was first to take on the bleeding edge, investing millions and putting nearly a half million miles on their specially outfitted stable of Toyota Prius’.

Google contends that there will be many benefits to leaving control of traffic in the metaphorical hands of computer logarithms.  These will include improved overall fuel efficiency, added safety, and another, less tangible, benefit – robots are never distracted. They don’t text or drink or get tired, and they see things no human being can.

DARPA, an acronym for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been partnering with quasi-government contractors, public institutions and private sector companies like Google since 1968, funding many robotics research efforts among a host of other avenues.

After Sebastian Thurn, developer of Google’s Street View, won the Pentagon’s 2005 DARPA challenge with his robot car “Stanley,” the company quickly went road-ready. Since then, Google has successfully covered more than 400,000 miles while in self-driving mode, across a wide variety of terrain and road conditions in California.

More about DARPA funded robotics projects…


According to Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google , self driving vehicles are the next logical step in transportation technology worldwide.  “There are many, many people who are under-served by our transportation system today”, says Brin.

According to a study done in 2011 by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a typical human reaction time without distractions is 0.88sec.   For a driver texting, talking, or distracted by noisy conversation while in morning rush hour, reaction time slows to 1.5 seconds.

The technology employed in today’s A2s have the ability to make driving decisions 20 times per second, nearly 20 times better than that of humans.  And that difference will continue to increase exponentially according to futurist, inventor, and artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

In an exciting new development, Kurzweil began work last week at Google as its new Director of Engineering, saying he is anxious to develop Artificial Intelligence building upon the vast resources at Google, “that can behave as an all-knowing, learned friend”.  It can be expected that the recreation of the mind under Kurzweil’s direction will be a core part of future A2 systems.

More on Ray Kurzweil’s How To Create A Mind

The decision to test on public highways certainly has its opposition.  As states like Florida, Oklahoma and Hawaii look into approving similar rules, editorials like this one in the Tampa Bay Observer assert that it’s not safe to experiment on their streets: “This bill is potentially hazardous, even though it requires robot cars to be monitored by humans who can quickly take control…. The right places to optimize safety are the test track, parking lot, cow pasture, anywhere but on busy public roads.”  Clearly a case of Not On My Street (NOMS), just like the Michiganders we spoke to during the Detroit Auto Show.

This is similar to the NIMBY (not in my backyard) reaction surrounding proposed large scale wind projects in the Great Lakes region.  Surprisingly, the loudest NIMBY protests to wind have come from groups and individuals who identify themselves as green and environmentally conscious consumers.

Likewise, in the case of the self-drive NOMS, many tend to recycle their plastic empties and feel that better fuel efficiencies through car2car communication is a good thing.  But, the possibility of accidents resulting from autonomous automobile mishaps outweighs any positive feelings toward the technology in some.

On the other hand,  The New York Times recently opined  the promise of decreasing deaths due to human error – as well as the potential for robotic vehicles to have greater fuel efficiency, lower emissions and possibly help restore the United States’ primacy in the global automobile industry – is an exciting prospect.

Further, a symposium on driverless cars sponsored by the Law Review and High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University showed that computerized systems could limit the human error that causes most of the injury and death yearly on the nation’s roads.

California Governor Jerry Brown has now signed into law a provision for driverless cars on the states highways.  Google co-founder Sergey Brin, sporting his Google glasses, stood by as Brown signed the bill on the company’s sprawling campus. Also on hand was the bill’s author, state Sen. Alex Padilla.

“Today, we’re here to celebrate that we’re stepping on the accelerator when it comes to the Google car,” said Padilla during his opening remarks, going on to mention the potential for the driverless car to avoid accidents and reduce traffic.

“It really has the power to change people’s lives, that’s why I’m really excited about it,” said Brin during his remarks in the lead-up to the signing.

Brin went on to list a variety of groups, including the blind, people too young to drive and even those who get a little too deep in their cups — all of whom would be better enabled with a driverless car.

“I expect self-driving cars are going to be far safer than human-driven cars. It’s at a substantial cost that we embrace our transportation systems. And I believe self-driving cars can eradicate much of that cost.

We want to use and create technology to dramatically improve the world,” answered Brin when asked whether Google wanted to manufacture the cars. “We currently don’t have plans to develop our own cars from scratch.”

Lexus at CES13 Vegas
Lexus at CES13 Vegas

We can picture a couple of obvious positives here.  Imagine sending your eleven year old kid to pick up the pizzas on a Friday night.  Or perhaps simply sending the car on its own to pick up Junior from hockey practice.

Insurance rates will likely be higher, as the responsibility still lies with the “owner” who has handed the control over to a software program.  Many questions and concerns will need to be thoroughly addressed before fully autonomous automobiles are given a full green light.

If there is a mechanical failure, and the vehicle is rear ended, will the other human driver get the traffic ticket as would be the case in most instances now?  I am quite sure most would fight such a ticket and blame the driverless car in lawsuits.

Can a cop pull an empty car over?  And finally the scenario where another reckless or intoxicated driver runs a stop light and striking the driverless car, sending RoboCar careening into a 7-11, smashing everything and sending store employees to hospital with bumps and bruises. And which insurance company would pony up and pay, and who would get the lawsuits?

KITT and the 'Hoff
KITT and the ‘Hoff

On a lighter note, I can see that one industry will suffer if these autonomous automobiles become commonplace in the city.  Valet parking attendants will secretly despise these smarty-pants sportscars, and will likely post signs in the best parking lots that read HUMANS ONLY  NO ROBOT CARS – Even If Your Name Is KITT!


Douglas Black
Douglas Black

Having more than 30 years experience in the green and sustainable building field, Douglas Black has dedicated the past 20 years to energy efficiency in the built environment.

Douglas is a high performance car enthusiast, always with an ear to the pavement for what’s fast and new.  He began blogging enerficiency On The Road in 2001, and now continues reporting from Auto Shows and Swap Meets at his Hot Flying Rats! blog –

He also uses his MagicEightBall to predict sporting outcomes and shares on his blog

Photography is a lifelong passion for Mr. Black, and while not capturing enthusiastic smiles at Wrigley Field and other sports venues around Chicago, he captures moments in the built environment.

And in his spare time, he works on getting that Captains License, expecting to retire on the water one day, taking photos.



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