Miscellaneous Ramblings

Google's Self-Driving Cars? Real Auto Enthusiasts Want Manual Control

Charles Moore - 2010.10.13 - Tip Jar

A weekend blog entry, What We're Driving At by Google Distinguished Software Engineer Sebastian Thrun, reveals that the company is not only developing cars that can drive themselves, it is already testing them on public highways.

Is Driving a 'Really Big Problem'?

Thrun says that Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google because they wanted to help solve "really big problems" using technology and notes that one of the big problems they're applying Google's formidable innovating prowess and engineering expertise to is automobile safety and efficiency, with the objectives being to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time, and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.


San Francisco's Lombard Street.

"Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard," Thrun writes. "They've driven down Lombard Street [a street in San Francisco famous for a steeply inclined one-block section consisting of tight hairpin turns], crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe [a large lake on the California-Nevada border]. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research."


Cars navigating Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Probably an understatement.

Thrun assures readers that safety has been priority one in this project, affirming that the fleet of seven prototype cars are never driven on public roads unmanned - they always have a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over instantly as easily as one disengages cruise control and a trained software operator in the passenger seat to monitor the software.

Test drives are preceded by dispatching a driver in a conventionally-driven car to map the route and road conditions. Mapping road-features like lane markers and traffic signs allows the automation software to become familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance. "And," he adds, "we've briefed local police on our work."

Is It Legal?

I had wondered about the legality aspect of operating a computer-controlled car on public highways, even with the backup driver and computer tech riding shotgun. In Are Google's Driverless Cars Legal?, Justin Hyde of Jalopnik.com wondered too and looked into the matter, finding that according to California authorities, there are no laws that would prevent Google from this sort of testing so long as there's a human behind the wheel ready to take over should something go wrong. Hyde cites California Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Mike Marando commenting that Google's software "would be just a big step up from cruise control. If the vehicle goes too fast, or strays across the line, the human would be responsible for operating the car legally."

Thrun says that Google has always been optimistic about technology's ability to advance society, and that is why the Google team is pushing hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today. Very much still in the experimental stage, he predicts that it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future, thanks to advanced computer science - and he deems that future very exciting.

Save the Manuals!

No doubt for techno-geeks. Not so much for serious automobile enthusiasts. In the July 2010 issue of Car and Driver magazine, Editor Eddie Alterman launched a Save the Manuals campaign to promote a revival of human driving skills, focusing on the disappearing ability among US drivers to operate vehicles with manually-shifted gearboxes and the diminishing proportion of cars sold equipped with manual transmissions.

Alterman cites a recent Washington Post report that today's hard-texting, IT-obsessed youth are inclined to dismiss driving as seriously lame, with only about 30% of 16-year-olds having even bothered to acquire driving licenses, according to 2008 research. That's a "distressing" statistic, says Alterman, and as a lifelong automobile aficionado, this writer concurs.

When I was sixteen, getting a driver's license was a near-universal rite of passage. I took my driving test and passed six days after my sixteenth birthday. However, one of my own daughters has reached the age of 26 without getting around to taking a driving test, although she's traveled the world extensively. My other daughter is carrying on the family tradition as a consummate auto-enthusiast and hot-rodder who makes her living working on cars and is a skilled driver, but I digress.

Mastering Your Car

CandD's Alterman maintains that if drivers learned to operate an entire car, not just the steering wheel and brakes, they'd probably like driving better through mastering the sense of control imparted by that third pedal, learning the excitement that accompanies a perfectly timed heel-and-toe downshift. He declares that we need a "crusade" to save the manuals and advocates training youth in the ancient ways of the stick shift, a subsidiary advantage of which would be the fact that you can't text while driving a manual transmission vehicle.

Jalopnik's Hyde agrees, lamenting that, sadly, modern vehicles have been replacing drivers with technology for years, adaptive cruise control now coming standard on many luxury models, with some Ford and Lexus vehicles able to parallel park on their own with only brake inputs from the driver and more advanced systems such as the one on the new Volvo S60 that apply the brakes automatically if they sense a crash is imminent.

Of course, Alterman's advocacy diametrically contradicts what Google is about with its self-driving car project, which - if it ever becomes the dominant motif - would pretty much nail down the coffin lid on traditional (or much of any) driving skills. I'm solidly in Alterman's camp, but we're bucking a trend, and resistance to Google's vision may ultimately be futile.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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