Last week, a friend and I got a sneak peek at Google's new self-driving cars. In addition to spending an afternoon cheating on my Intergalactic SpaceBoat of Light and Wonder, I got to chat with the engineers about the project.1. Human beings are terrible drivers.
We drink. We doze. We text. In the US, 30,000 people die from automobile accidents every year. Traffic crashes are the primary cause of death worldwide for people aged 15-24, and during a crash, 40% of drivers never even hit the brakes. We're flawed organisms, barreling around at high speeds in vessels covered in glass, metal, distraction, and death. This is one of Google's "moonshots" -- to remove human error from a job which, for the past hundred years, has been entirely human.2. Google self-driving cars are timid.
The car we rode in did not strike me as dangerous. It struck me as cautious. It drove slowly and deliberately, and I got the impression that it's more likely to annoy other drivers than to harm them. Google can adjust the level of aggression in the software, and the self-driving prototypes currently tooling around Mountain View are throttled to act like nervous student drivers. In the early versions they tested on closed courses, the vehicles were programmed to be highly aggressive. Apparently during these aggression tests, which involved obstacles courses full of traffic cones and inflatable crash-test objects, there were a lot of screeching brakes and roaring engines and terrified interns. Although impractical on the open road, part of me wishes I could have experienced that version as well. ...[Continue reading on Theoatmeal]