Today the Google Self Driving Car Project posted a video called “First Drive,” showing a small group of people who are among the first people outside of Google to experience a car that drives itself. What was rolled out of the trailer looked something along the lines of a cross between a Fiat 500 and a Smart For Two with a blender mounted on top, and prompted one participant to exclaim, “Isn’t that cute?” As any car aficionado will tell you, cute is not the adjective we hope to hear when describing the physical representation of our psycho-mechanical lust. But let’s face it, without a steering wheel, Google’s automated car wasn’t designed for us.
So who is it designed for? Commuters. Admit it, rush hour is not the place for driving enthusiasts. Bumper to bumper traffic, just gets the blood pressure up, not the oil pressure. Imagine a commute where you could finalize a work presentation, type up your morning blog post, enjoy a video chat with your kids, or snooze! I’ve commuted by train and see the Google Self Driving car as another mode of transportation offering everything that commuting by train offers, only better. The Google automated car would remove the problem of how to get to and from the train station on either end of the commute by taking you from your home directly to your office, restaurant or shopping center without having to wait to transfer to a bus, catch a cab, or another train. Your commute time would improve, and the time spent commuting could be more productive (or restful) without having to transfer or wait for connections.
As much as I hate to admit it, traffic would probably improve as well. It’s highly unlikely the Googlemobile is going to weave in and out of traffic cutting people off and causing a chain reaction of brake lights behind it just to gain half a car length over its previous position. A group of cars all moving at the same pace will move more efficiently than a group of cars all moving and different speeds, so once again there will be less honking, and a lot less braking to compensate for the oil and water mixture of the overzealous and overly timid drivers begrudgingly sharing the road today. It sounds Utopian, and that’s what scares me.
Never mind the fact that I like to drive, and prefer to be in charge of my own destiny, not having a machine make those decisions for me. Machines break, computers crash, software has bugs, and networks get hacked. The last place I want to be is in or on a highway near one of these cars when these things start to go wrong. We could isolate them to their own roads, but then they are no better than a glorified commuter train. No, to make them worthwhile, they have to have the same road access and function as a car. And perhaps that’s the answer. Instead of removing the steering wheel, perhaps these cars should offer their self-driving feature as an option instead. This would allow for human over ride if things did start to go buggy, and aid in getting the car off the road. After all, how do you steer a car with no steering wheel if it has to be pushed?
There is a lot of potential here, though, and kudos to Google for advancing the technology this far. But there are a lot of questions left to be answered before you’ll get me into one. I’m not ready to relinquish my driver’s seat to a machine just yet. So, I’ll take the wheel, thank you, along with my manual transmission, and hold onto them myself, at least until you pry them from my cold dead fingers.