As you may well have heard Google has been developing self-driving cars for some time now. When they cross the chasm to maintream use they will be a huge force for good in society, reducing accident rates, easing congestion, facilitating car-sharing, enabling elderly people to keep driving longer and allowing millions of people to re-claim time that is currently lost to commuting. That’s a punchy sentence, and I chose each word carefully.
If you have yet to see a video of these cars in action go search for them on Youtube. You will find some incredible videos there including some quite hairy footage of fast autonomous driving around car parks and slower paced shots of cars navigating traffic, stop-lights and pedestrians. The cars are kitted out with laser range finders, radar, cameras, and inertia sensors which connect to an onboard computer which controls the engine and steering wheel. They have driven over 200,000 miles on the roads now without accident, although there has always been a human sat in the driving seat ready to take over if things go wrong.
The news today is that self-driving cars have taken a meaningful step forward towards commercial reality. Cars are currently required by law to have a driver but Nevada has made the first step towards making them legal by creating a license category for driverless cars. The license will only be granted to cars that have passed stringent safety tests and requires two people to be in the car whilst it is driving, including one behind the wheel, and the first license has been granted already. To Google. I have heard that Nevada wanted to the first state to embrace self-driving cars because they believe that companies will then come to Nevada to develop the underlying technologies bringing jobs and investment to the State. Google and other lobbyists for self-driving cars convinced Nevada to act quickly by talking to other states and countries and creating a sense of urgency and competition.
There is still a long way to go before we can tear up our driving licenses, and the key stumbling block is perceptions of safety. Self-driving cars have a better safety record than human driven cars but the image of a computer controlled car going wrong and causing a fatal accident is a powerful one, and one which makes everybody nervous, but the data so far shows these fears have no grounding in reality. It will be interesting to see how quickly Nevada is willing to embrace this technology and legislates to make it a commercial reality. Given the scale of the benefits and the limited downside I think it is a question of when rather than if.