Late last year, Google stunned the world with an announcement that it was working on a self-driving car. What was most shocking wasn’t that the company was working on such a system, but that it had been testing the system with a fleet of prototypes, logging 140,000 on public roads.
Granted, these cars were manned. But Google maintains that its software was generally able to handle the routes it was presented with without much human intervention:
Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe.
Except for a few tame demo videos, Google hasn’t really shown us much of what these cars are capable of on the road. Now, courtesy of Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand, we can see the system flexing its muscles, from both outside and inside a demo car. I’ve posted the inside view below; the second video is available at Danny’s site.
This particular course was designed for aggressive driving, and Google’s engineers instructed the car to drive accordingly. This may not seem like the best way to assuage peoples’ immediate and visceral worries about automated cars; predictably, the video has already spawned countless jokes in comment sections around the internet. (Example: “Today I learned how Google maps directions want you to drive to get places on time,” wrote one user on Reddit.)
Counterintuitively, this kind of demo should actually be quite heartening. Why? Because it provides a more accurate representation of potential uses for Google’s technology than previous videos of a calmly piloted Google-powered cars. Consider this: It’s hard to imagine a near-future scenario in which cars are allow to truly drive themselves; issues of safety and liability abound, and even constructing a practical–not to mention legal–framework for active driving assistance will not be a fast or easy process. The application of such technology in less conspicuous role is much easier to imagine. A role like, say, accident prevention.
Various computer-aided accident prevention features have been included in luxury cars for years now. Google’s software includes sophisticated methods for avoiding collisions, many of which could conceivably be utilized in cars that are primarily human-controlled. Aggressive driving as seen in the above video could be employed in a defensive capacity, with reaction speeds and decision-making clarity that a human operator might lack. This could serve as the first step in the increasingly inevitable march forward for automated cars.
Another possible path? Google’s software as an incremental outgrowth of the cruise control systems built into nearly every car on the road today. This is the vision that Google seems to have (rightly!) promoted and cultivated so far, and will probably serve them better in their long-term goal of actually helping bring a fully automated car to market.
Still, it’s nice to see that the self-driving car of the future has some driving chops.