Car accidents of traffic jams could soon become part of history, according to Google and Tesla CEOs. Google’s self-drive car project leader claims the new technology could become the standard in just a few years, while Tesla chief executive dreams even further and claims human drivers may and should disappear completely in five years time.
While some thought that the involvement of Apple or Sony in the car industry is somewhat of an unorthodox strategy, then the recent announcements made by Google and Tesla officials will seem completely mind-blowing to them. Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-drive car program, told people present at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference that he is confident the prototype fully automated car revealed in December by the company will become the most popular thing on the streets five years from now.
Urmson added a personal touch to his statement when he explained he wants to make sure his 11-year old son won’t be needing a driving license when he’s 16. A Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. graduate, the Google lead designer estimates the new vehicle will be ready for consumers in less than five years, but intensive tests are still being performed to make sure of its safety and viability.
The Google pod-like electric prototype was only recently opened for public scrutiny and the main concern its first reviewers expressed was about the vehicle’s low speed. The team behind the project claim speed is not an issue, as their main focus is on ensuring the safety of the eventual Google car buyers. “Some 1.2 million people are killed on the roads around the world each year. That number is equivalent to a jet falling out of the sky every day,” researchers said.
The prototype will be stripped of the traditional steering wheel or any other conventional controls, although controls of some sort will be fitted on the earlier versions which are about to go out on the streets for testing. “We’re conscious of the impression we can make while driving around town. If we need to, we’ll take control from the computer,” explained Nathaniel Fairfield, chief software designer for Google’s self-driving car project.
Many car makers have started introducing driver-assistance components for their models, and while Google developers don’t believe this to be enough they showed willingness to cooperate with car industry giants to achieve their common purposes. After all, the search engine company is probably realizing it will not be able to build tens of thousands of electric self-drive vehicles without any help.
“We think there’s a business opportunity here, but what’s evident is that making cars is really hard, and the car companies are quite good at it,” Urmson detailed Google’s production plans. “So, in my mind, the solution is to find a partnership.”
Car producers seem to have no objection about it, and as long as the final product will be competitive on the market, they entrust Google with the software development. “There’s no doubt that the auto industry at large has come to understand the importance of self-driving cars, but Google has a distinctive lead over other initiatives,” Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski told reporters.
Since Google’s first such partnership with Lexus resulted in a $75,000 egg-shaped vehicle, it remains to see how much consumers will value their safety. If the Google program will give birth to an accident-proof car, people might take it seriously, given that “92% of accidents are caused by human error,” according to Koslowski.
“In the distant future it will be only outlaws driving cars”
While executives at Google are trying to convince as that driverless cars will become a viable alternative in the near future, some daringly assume that human drivers will be banned altogether.
In an interview at Nvidia’s annual GPU Technology Conference, Tesla CEO Elon Musk argued that “You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.” Known for its Model S electric car, Tesla also announced it has plans to get involved in developing autonomous cars. “Tesla is the leader in electric cars, and we’ll also be the leader in autonomous cars,” Musk told at the conference.
The Tesla chief executive believes the problem does not reside in proving that human drivers are more dangerous than self-driving cars, since there is enough scientific data to support that theory. It would be far more difficult to convince governments to implement the necessary regulatory measures if the human factor is to be removes from the equation.
In terms of reliability, Musk estimates that the biggest challenge will come from making the autonomous vehicles work safely on narrow streets, at intermediate speeds of up to 50 mph. “Highway cruise is easy, low speed is easy, it’s medium that’s hard,” the Tesla boss said, suggesting that high speed traffic won’t be as problematic.
In the interview during which he sometimes seemed to borrow ideas from a Sci-Fi Hollywood production, the Tesla CEO patiently explained that the permanent removal of human drivers is a matter of “when” rather than “how”. The knowledge for self-driving cars already exists out there, the only thing that’s left is for hardware producers – like Nvidia – to update their technology.
Tesla even came up with a term for non-autonomous car drivers – they call them “legacy” drivers – and assured them that for the time being the company is still concerned about the safety of human-driven vehicles. But Musk’s belief is that given time, technology will ultimately catch up and “In the distant future it will be only outlaws driving cars.”
Image Source: USA Today