So long, jetpacks! Our self-driving car has arrived. Burkhard Bilger has a rundown of the fascinating build-up to the self-driving car and its future in the New Yorker — and in this case the future is now. Now, the question is, are we really ready to start using it?
"Of the 10 million accidents that Americans are in every year," Bilger writes, "nine and a half million are their own damn fault." Already, Google's self-driving car is better than us at our own game. California drivers have already started spotting Google's self-driving car out and about on the roads (it's generally pretty inconspicuous — minus the rooftop attachment, a big Google logo on its side, and a giant, suitably red kill switch wedged in between the two front seats). So far, it's gone over half a million miles without an accident and the average American driver can only make it about half that far before we start knocking over traffic cones and hitting curbs. But, at least so far, it still needs a bit of a human touch:
Of course, the computer has always had a human driver to take over in tight spots. Left to its own devices, Thrun says, it could go only about fifty thousand miles on freeways without a major mistake. Google calls this the dog-food stage: not quite fit for human consumption. "The risk is too high," Thrun says. "You would never accept it." The car has trouble in the rain, for instance, when its lasers bounce off shiny surfaces. (The first drops call forth a small icon of a cloud onscreen and a voice warning that auto-drive will soon disengage.) It can't tell wet concrete from dry or fresh asphalt from firm. It can't hear a traffic cop's whistle or follow hand signals.
Still, despite their apparent tendency to feel a little gloomy when it rains, the list of things the robo-driver can bring to the table (perfect attention, total recall of all traffic rules, and the ability to see in the dark) is pretty damn impressive:
And yet, for each of its failings, the car has a corresponding strength. It never gets drowsy or distracted, never wonders who has the right-of-way. It knows every turn, tree, and streetlight ahead in precise, three-dimensional detail. Dolgov was riding through a wooded area one night when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. "I was thinking, What the hell? It must be a bug," he told me. "Then we noticed the deer walking along the shoulder." The car, unlike its riders, could see in the dark. Within a year, Thrun added, it should be safe for a hundred thousand miles.
So what do you folks think? Are you ready to welcome our new robotic traffic overlords with open arms (and just wait out any light drizzles in the parking lot) or are you keeping both hands firmly (at ten and two) on the wheel?