They're actually called "autonomous vehicles" and Google has built of fleet of them that have driven more than 140,000 miles, most of that in the Bay Area (they're plastered with the words, "self-driving car." The question is whether the test drives are leading up to real-life applications. Tom Vanderbilt, the author of "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)," examines the topic in the February issue of Wired magazine.
Google isn't the only company with driverless cars on the road. Indeed, just about every traditional automaker is developing its own self-driving model, peppering Silicon Valley with new R&D labs to work on the challenge. Last year, a BMW drove itself down the Autobahn, from Munich to Ingolstadt ("the home of Audi," as BMW's Dirk Rossberg told me at the company's outpost in Mountain View, California). Audi sent an autonomous vehicle up Pikes Peak, while VW, in conjunction with Stanford, is building a successor to Junior. At the Tokyo Auto Show in November, Toyota unveiled its Prius AVOS (Automatic Vehicle Operation System), which can be summoned remotely. GM's Alan Taub predicts that self-driving cars will be on the road by the decade's end.
It is absolutely fascinating, almost illicitly thrilling, to watch as the car not only plots and calculates the myriad movements of neighboring vehicles in the moment but also predicts where they will be in the future, like high-speed, mobile chess. Onscreen, the car is constantly "acquiring" targets, surrounding them in red boxes, tracing raster lines to and fro, a freeway version of John Madden's Telestrator. "We're analyzing and predicting the world 20 times a second," says [Anthony Levandowski, business lead on Google's self-driving-car project]. A car comes speeding along the adjacent on-ramp. Do we accelerate or slow? It's a moment that puzzles many human drivers. Our vehicle chooses to decelerate, but it can rethink that decision as more data comes in--if, for instance, the merging car brakes suddenly. The computer flags a car one lane over, maybe 30 feet in front of us, and slows imperceptibly. "We're being held back by this guy because we don't want to be in his blind spot," Levandowski says.
I find myself imagining how much more smoothly the system would function if every car were like this one. Even at its most packed, only about 5 percent of a highway's surface is covered by automobiles; if cars were hyperalert and algorithmically optimized, you could presumably squeeze many more of them onto the pavement. And then there's the safety benefit. Traffic is the most dangerous thing that most of us ever encounter. From 2001 to 2009, American roads claimed 369,629 lives. And the culprit was not poorly lighted thoroughfares or faulty gas pedals but us--one landmark study cited "human errors" as the "definite or probable causes" of 93 percent of crashes.
This is not some Buck Rogers fantasy. The driverless technology merely follows the computer-driven advances of late-model cars, in effect redefining what it means to be a driver. That includes using a computer for everything from shifting gears to parallel parking. "The automated car," Vanderbilt writes, "isn't just around the corner--it's here. The more interesting question isn't when we will let go of the wheel completely but what form and purpose the car will have when we finally do." This is precisely the sort of technology that L.A. and other traffic-clogged cities should be focused on - not outdated modes of transport, like a subway system, that could prove to be impossibly expensive and not especially effective in reducing congestion. Why couldn't Southern California become a leader in this and other advanced methods of transport? It would be an exciting challenge on so many levels, generating a new kind of tech industry that could have significant economic potential.