Our Driverless Future?

Google has been making headlines after the company revealed over the weekend that its driverless cars have logged nearly 140,000 miles on public roads (see this awesome video clip). These robot cars are able to navigate traffic through a combination of GPS, radar, mounted video cameras, and laser range finders. The basic technology has existed for several decades and has gradually been improving. DoD’s DARPA sponsored a series of annual Grand Challenge competitions a few years ago, awarding a team consisting of Carnegie Mellon University and GM engineers with $2 million in 2007.

I find these events incredibly encouraging. America’s surface transportation technology has seen no significant improvements in 50 years (in the case of rail transit, make that 120). Sure, cars have all sorts of new technologies, from mp3 players to automatic parallel parking features. But the roads? No real breakthroughs since the Interstate system was devised. Cato’s Randal O’Toole, a longtime supporter of this sort of technology, had a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March praising the concept:

Driverless cars and trucks will be safer. They will also be greener, first by significantly reducing congestion, and eventually because vehicles will be lighter in weight due to reduced collision risks.

Perhaps most important, driverless vehicles will bring mobility to everyone, not just those able to pass a driver’s test. While many people will still choose to own a car, increased numbers may rely on car sharing. Outside of ultra-high-density areas such as Manhattan, driverless cars will render urban transit and intercity passenger trains even more obsolete than they are today.

The American automobile fleet turns over every 18 years, so if Mr. Burns’s prediction that driverless cars will hit the market by 2018 comes true, we could have a completely driverless system by 2036. State highway officials could accelerate this timetable by working with auto manufacturers to set standards and a transition path. State and local highway agencies could install wireless communication systems at major intersections and highways—a much less costly undertaking than building new roads, much less high-speed rail.

The technology seems to be making great progress, but there are impediments. As O’Toole notes, “the primary obstacles were legal and bureaucratic, not technological.” After Google’s announcement, a flurry of auto-bloggers questioned the legality — some not even masking their contempt for a driverless auto future, citing a know-nothing California DMV bureaucrat who claimed Google’s robocars “would be just a big step up from cruise control.” This is true, if “big step” is defined as “a revolution in personal automobility.” Indeed, outdated traffic laws are the biggest problems facing this technology. Of course, once automakers are ready to make the leap (or “big step”), there will be a lot of pressure on politicians and bureaucrats to update their then-out-of-date regulations. That’s a bridge we’ll have to cross when we get there.

There will always be technology naysayers. My favorite pessimistic comment comes from the Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, the once-famous Dot Com optimist who lost most of his money when the tech bubble burst in 2000 (while he was telling everyone to buy as many tech stocks as they could to stuff in their 401ks):

Why is Google developing this technology?

Why is Google spending the $10+ million of shareholder money per year the project consumes (15 engineers, plus drivers, plus the cars).

Isn’t there something closer to its core business that Google could spend this money on?

Blodget argues that Google is straying too far from its core business and that there are better things for Google to do that would enhance shareholder value. While “mission creep” might characterize Google’s path in recent years, one might argue it’s a feature and not a bug. Google has a lot of talent, and continues to draw the best and the brightest from around the world. Google’s chief asset is this talent pool. Since it became the king of search engines, Google has broadened its business model to include all sorts of non-search-related technologies — and management is willing to invest in long-term product development. And they’ve been quite successful! Rather than denounce a consumer technology that won’t go live for at least a decade, Blodget should try to understand the implications (and profit potential) of driverless vehicles:

  1. Congestion could be drastically reduced while still cutting road expenditures.
  2. Injuries and deaths caused by drivers would fall dramatically.
  3. Environmental concerns would be addressed as fuel wouldn’t be wasted by drivers sitting on congested roads and the cars could be lighter thanks to the decreased collision risk.
  4. And last but not least, this would be the most significant innovation in the automotive sphere since the development of the assembly line! If only Henry Ford had stuck to his “core business” and continued designing race cars…